Epiglottis: Definition, Anatomy, Function, Pathologies, Examinations and Treatments

It plays the role of switch at the entrance to the pharynx.

The pharynx has two outlets: the esophagus and the larynx , when food enters the pharynx and is swallowed, the epiglottis tilts and closes the hole that goes to the larynx.

This allows food to go into the esophagus and stomach and not flow back.

The epiglottis is often likened to a valve, avoiding the false path of food to the trachea.

Anatomy of the epiglottis

Position

The epiglottis is a structure of the larynx, which is located after the pharynx, at the level of the separation between the airways (towards the trachea) and the digestive tract (towards the esophagus).

The larynx is attached in its upper part to the hyoid bone.

The larynx is a tube made up of different cartilages of which there are five main ones: thyroid cartilage, arytenoid cartilage, cricoid cartilage, and epiglottic cartilage.

Cartilage is interconnected by a set of ligaments and surrounded by membranes that ensure the rigidity of the larynx.

Movement of the larynx is allowed by various muscles that will be involved in the movement of the epiglottis and vocal cords.

Structure of the epiglottis

The epiglottis consists mainly of epiglottic cartilage, forming a heart-shaped relief and giving flexibility to the epiglottis.

This cartilage is covered with a mucous membrane. The epiglottis has an upper free edge, and it is compensated thanks to:

  • The thyroepiglottic ligament in its lower part.
  • In the hyoepiglottic ligament on its anterior surface in the hyoid bone.

Innervation

The innervation of the epiglottis depended on the vagus, glossopharyngeal, and hypoglossal nerve branches.

Due to its innervation, the epiglottis appears to be a glosso-laryngeal structure, as confirmed by embryology, histology, and clinical applications.

Epiglottis function

  • Role in swallowing: To prevent the passage of food or liquids into the trachea and lungs, the epiglottis closes the larynx and the vocal cords join.
  • Respiratory function: The epiglottis and vocal cords allow inspired air to flow into the trachea and lungs, and exhaled air into the pharynx.

Pathologies of the epiglottis

Sore throat

In most cases, they are viral in origin.

In the case of laryngitis or epiglottitis, they can be related to a bacterial infection.

Laryngitis

It corresponds to inflammation of the larynx, which can affect the epiglottis.

Acute or chronic, it can be manifested by a cough and dysphonia.

It is more serious in children and can be accompanied by dyspnea (shortness of breath).

Epiglotitis

Often bacterial in origin, it is a severe form of laryngitis that directly affects the epiglottis.

It can lead to edema of the epiglottis and can cause suffocation.

Cancer of the larynx

It is generally associated with throat cancer and can be reported at all levels of the larynx, including the epiglottis.

Treatments

Antibiotic or anti-inflammatory treatment

An antibiotic may be prescribed in the case of a bacterial infection.

Anti-inflammatories can also be prescribed to limit inflammation.

Tracheotomy

In the most severe cases, this surgical procedure involves opening the larynx to allow air to pass through and prevent suffocation.

Laryngectomy

In the most severe cases of cancer, the larynx may be removed.

Radiotherapy

Cancer cells are killed by X-rays, gamma rays, or high-energy particles.

Chemotherapy

Drugs that attack very rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells, may be given.

Surgery

This option has several techniques that will depend on factors, such as the size of the tumor or the location.

Examination of the epiglottis

Indirect laryngoscopy

It allows to observe the larynx, and especially the epiglottis, using a small mirror placed in the lower part of the throat.

Direct laryngoscopy

The larynx is studied using a rigid and flexible tube inserted through the nose.

This procedure may also allow for a sample (biopsy) if the exam requires it.

Largopharographic

This radiographic examination of the larynx can be performed to complete the diagnosis.

Blood test

It is used to detect the presence of cancer in the body.

Head and neck computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging

To detect tumors or some other abnormality.