The throat is an integral part of the body’s digestive and respiratory systems. It is where the food passes through before being directed into the esophagus and stomach for digestion. The throat is also part of the respiratory system and is connected to the nasal cavity, allowing air to pass through from the nose, into the larynx, then the trachea and into the lungs. It is responsible for making sure breathing and swallowing are coordinated so food does not get into the trachea, which could lead to choking.
The throat is composed of several parts that work together to organize and coordinate a smooth flow of food and air. These include:
Pharynx – It is the part of the throat that connects the mouth and nasal cavity, via a muscular tube, to the esophagus and larynx. Serving as the passageway for the food and air to get to the stomach and lungs, it is divided into three regions: nasopharynx (upper part, composed of the hard and soft palate in the mouth); oropharynx (middle part, composed of the uvula and tonsils); and the laryngopharynx (lower part, composed of the epiglottis and the pathway that leads to either the esophagus or the larynx).
Epiglottis – This is a muscular fold that closes over the larynx in the process of swallowing to prevent food from passing into it and getting into the lungs. When food or other particle gets lodged in the larynx, it leads to a medical condition called pulmonary aspiration.
Larynx – Often referred to as the voice box, this vertical, muscular tube houses the vocal cords giving humans the ability to produce sound. Inhaled air also passes through the larynx on its way to the trachea.
Trachea – Also known as the windpipe, this is a vertical, hollow, and muscular pipe that connects the voice box to the bronchi of the lungs. Its main function is to provide airflow to and from the lungs for respiration.
Esophagus – This is another vertical, muscular tube diverging from the pharynx and carries food and fluids into the stomach. Measuring about 9-10 inches long and 2 centimeters wide when relaxed, it forms a piece of the gastrointestinal tract and is located close to the trachea in the thoracic and neck regions.
Common Throat Problems/Conditions
Strep throat – Strep throat, or streptococcal pharyngitis, is an infection caused by the group A streptococcus bacteria. It can cause several flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, swollen tonsils, vomiting, rashes, and enlarged lymph nodes. Strep throat is a contagious infection that commonly affects pediatric patients and may cause complications such as rheumatic fever.
Tonsillitis – Tonsillitis refers to the inflammation of the tonsils, usually due to a viral or bacterial infection. Most cases, however, are linked to viral causes. This condition typically causes a sore throat, pain when swallowing, high fever, coughing, and earache, and, like strep throat, is also common among pediatric patients.
Pharyngitis – Pharyngitis refers to the inflammation of the pharynx. Like tonsillitis, it is often caused by viral or bacterial infections that are rampant during colder months. It is commonly and simply called a “sore throat” and can cause throat pain, a coarse feeling in the throat, and pain when swallowing.
Common Throat Procedures and Surgeries
While viral and bacterial infections of the throat can usually be treated with anti-viral and antibacterial medications, some procedures and surgeries may be necessary in certain cases, such as when infections are recurrent and occur very frequently. Some common procedures and surgeries performed on the throat include:
Tracheotomy – A tracheotomy is a procedure in which a surgical opening is created in the throat and trachea to gain access to the breathing tube. It is performed on patients who, for some reasons, are unable to breathe on their own or are experiencing obstructed breathing. This is commonly done in emergency situations.
Tonsillectomy – A tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure used for the removal of the tonsils. It is performed on patients who experience recurrent or frequent tonsil infections. Although the tonsils are part of the immune system, they can be removed without any serious consequences. Doing so can help stop recurrent infections and thus relieve related symptoms. However, this procedure is usually only performed when its benefits outweigh the risks.
Adenoidectomy – Similar to a tonsillectomy, an adenoidectomy also refers to the surgical removal of one of the structures found in the throat. The adenoids, like the tonsils, are part of the immune system that enable the body to fight against infections. However, in severe cases of infection, the adenoids may get so swollen that the patient's breathing may become obstructed. Such cases may require adenoidectomy.