Parts of the Throat and Their Functions
The throat consists of three main sections: the nasopharynx, oropharynx and laryngopharynx. Each plays an important role in digestion and breathing.
Beginning at the back of the nasal cavity, and situated behind the nose and above the soft palate, the nasopharynx functions as the respiratory system’s main airway. Also important—split on two lateral walls is the pharyngeal opening of the Eustachian (auditory) tube, which plays a role in the process of hearing. The nasopharynx additionally contains the adenoids.
The part of the throat at the back of the mouth behind the oral cavity, the oropharynx includes the back third of the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat and the tonsils, all of which interplay with one another to support the passageway for food en route from the mouth to the esophagus and air en route to the nasal cavity.
The junction of where the respiratory and digestive systems diverge, the rear of the laryngopharynx becomes the esophagus and continues into the digestive tract, while the front of the laryngopharynx merges with the entrance of the larynx. The epiglottis—the leaf-shaped flap—in your throat is here, which directs food on its correct path toward the esophagus, and prevents food and liquids from entering the trachea.
Common Conditions That Affect the Throat
Acid Reflux: A chronic disease that occurs when stomach contents flow back (reflux) into the food pipe (esophagus). One of the most common digestive disorders, it’s usually caused by failure of the muscle valve (called the lower esophageal sphincter) between the stomach and the esophagus to close properly. The backwash of stomach acid irritates the lining of the lower esophagus and causes the symptom of heartburn.
Throat Cancer: A grouping of cancer within a family of cancers commonly referred to as head and neck cancer, tumors that develop in the throat, voice box, vocal cords or tonsils are usually subdivided into the throat category. As with most cancers, the exact cause is not known, though people who smoke, use smokeless tobacco or drink alcohol are most at risk.
Tonsillitis: As part of our immune system, tonsils (and adenoids) are the body’s first line of defense against disease. They “sample” bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the mouth or nose, but they sometimes become infected, or tonsillitis. Similar to the lymph nodes or “glands” found in the neck, groin, and armpits, tonsils are the two round lumps in the back of the throat.
Chronic Cough: A chronic cough is defined as one that persists over time, in most cases eight weeks or longer. Not a condition itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition, a lingering cough can disrupt your sleep and affect your work. It may be accompanied by other symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, runny nose, congestion and heartburn.
Laryngitis: Laryngitis is swelling and irritation of the larynx (voice box). It causes hoarseness and, in some cases, voice loss. It can be acute (short-lived) or chronic (long-lasting) but is usually the result of a temporary viral infection or vocal strain and clears up quickly. Persistent laryngitis that lasts longer than two weeks could be a sign of a serious condition and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Sore Throat: A sore throat is a painful but common affliction that everyone suffers from on occasion. It may be the first sign of a cold, the result of strained vocal cords or a symptom of a more serious condition such as strep throat. As miserable as a sore throat can make you feel, in many cases symptoms clear up quickly and without medical treatment.
Thyroid & Parathyroid Conditions: The thyroid and parathyroid are separate glands located in the neck. Each serves an important function: the thyroid generates a hormone that regulates the body’s metabolism, while the parathyroid controls the level of calcium in the blood. Together, they are responsible for many of the body’s daily functions, and when compromised, can result in hyperactivity and hypoactivity that can cause everything from depression and fatigue to autoimmune disorders and tumors.
Swallowing Disorders (a.k.a. Dysphagia): Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing, or the sensation that food is stuck in the throat or chest. It usually indicates an inability of the esophagus to properly move food from the mouth to the stomach. It can affect people of all ages, but is most commonly associated with the elderly.
How Are Throat Conditions Diagnosed?
ENT doctors use a variety of methods to diagnose throat conditions, including lighted scope tools, symptom-related testing and more technically advanced methods such as swab cultures for bacteria and virus testing or biopsies, if cancer is suspected.