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What is the Pharynx?

By Christa Roy
Updated Feb 23, 2024
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The pharynx is an organ in humans and most animals that connects the mouth with the larger digestive system. It’s sometimes thought of as the throat, and the throat is a big part of it — but the organ typically also encompasses parts of the vocal cords, the sinuses, and the nasal passageways. It's usually a long, smooth tube, and it can have a slightly different role for different animals. In general it is very important to both breathing and swallowing. For humans particularly, it’s also essential for speech and vocalizations like singing. Due to this body part’s exposure to airborne irritants and bacteria, it can sometimes get inflamed. A sore throat is one of the most common names for an inflamed pharynx, and this is usually relatively minor. More serious conditions include streptococcus infections, tonsil complications, and certain cancers, though these are relatively rare.

Divisions in Human Anatomy

The human pharynx is widely seen as one of the most complex, at least from an anatomical perspective. It can be divided into three parts: the nasopharynx, the oropharynx, and the laryngopharynx. The nasopharynx is at the base of the skull next to the upper surface of the soft palate and is most important to the digestive and respiratory systems. The pharyngeal tonsil, which is a mass of lymphoid tissue commonly known as the adenoid, can also be found in this area.

The oropharynx extends from the uvula to the epiglottis, a flap of tissue that prevents food from entering the lungs when swallowing. It allows for both food and air to pass through the body. The larynopharynx, by contrast, connects to the esophagus. This part of the throat diverts food to the stomach by temporarily blocking the passage of air, which in turn prevents the body from choking or aspirating while eating. This part is typically near the fourth and sixth cervical vertebrate.

Role in Breathing

Most experts classify this organ as part of both the respiratory and the digestive systems. In its respiratory capacity, it plays a major role in oxygen intake, as well as carbon dioxide exhalation. Whether a person breathes through the nose of the mouth, the air brought in travels up and down the throat on the way to the lungs. Blockages or irritations can make breathing more labored, which can make it harder for the body to get the oxygen it needs when it needs it.

As Part of the Digestive System

Food, too, is a critical element that enters the body through the mouth and throat, and it is for this reason that this part of the body is also usually considered part of the digestive tract. It helps food and drink pass from the mouth down into the stomach, and smooth muscular tissues and fibers along the throat walls help move chewed particulates along. This works both to prevent choking and to speed processing.

Impact on Vocalizations and Speech

The vocal cords are almost always located here, too, which means that speech and oral communications are also significant aspects. When air moves through the vocal cords and they rub across one another, it creates sounds. Humans and some animals have honed the use of these cords to produce logical and reasoned sounds that can be used to create language, express emotion, and generally communicate.

Infection and Inflammation

Sore throats are a common problem for many people. The medical name for this discomfort is pharyngitis, and it most cases it is caused by an infection or inflammation of the pharynx. Infections are common because both food and air pass through this area. Tonsil infections can also sometimes spread here. When the tonsils become infected numerous times, they are sometimes removed to prevent future incidences and chances for spread.

Other problems can impact this particular part of the body, too. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma, for instance, is a cancer in the upper part of the throat. It is typically not found until it has metastasized to other parts of the body. It is very rare, but it is usually quite serious.

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Discussion Comments

By cloudel — On Jul 15, 2012

@shell4life – I think it depends on the part of the pharynx that is affected, too. My aunt had different pharynx cancer symptoms than the ones you listed.

She had a sore throat that she just could not get rid of. She said that it felt like she was swallowing over a lump. She also had soreness in her ear.

Thankfully, the doctor caught the cancer in time to get rid of it. I suppose that if her lower pharynx had been the site of the cancer, she would have had the heartburn symptoms that you spoke of instead, which would not have pointed so readily to cancer.

By shell4life — On Jul 14, 2012

It's no wonder that pharynx cancer goes undetected. Have you ever read a list of symptoms?

Basically, a person with pharynx cancer just has reflux and heartburn. Those are things that nearly everyone experiences from time to time, and many people deal with them on a daily basis but don't have cancer.

The only other symptom I have heard of is a pain in your chest after you have eaten a meal. However, a person could easily assume that this is just heartburn or food having a hard time going down.

It's terrible that there are no good indicators of pharynx cancer. I'm glad that it is rare, because it is so hard to detect.

By wavy58 — On Jul 13, 2012

@JackWhack – I am the only one of my friends who still has tonsils. In the early eighties, doctors were just chomping at the bit to remove them!

I did get a lot of minor cases of pharyngitis as a kid, but they are nothing compared to the bacterial pharyngitis that I have gotten a couple of times in the past few years. I'm referring to strep throat, the most painful sore throat that a person can have.

My throat swelled up so much that I could barely swallow my own saliva. I got a high fever, and I just felt out of my head. I was so ready to go to the doctor the next morning so that I could get some relief!

I took antibiotics and steroids for days. The steroids were the most powerful, and they made the swelling go down within 24 hours.

Bacterial pharyngitis like strep throat is nothing to fool around with. If you don't get it treated, you can wind up with kidney problems.

By JackWhack — On Jul 13, 2012

Wow, this is a really thorough pharynx definition. I didn't know that it had so many sections!

My only experience with the word “pharynx” was when I got diagnosed with pharyngitis a lot as a kid. The doctor wanted to take my tonsils because of the recurring infections, but my mother wouldn't let him.

I'm actually glad now that she didn't. There is more research that says that tonsils can actually help your body prevent infections. If I had gotten them removed, I might have been exposing my body to harmful things.

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