What is the pharynx?
The pharynx, commonly called the throat, is a muscular, funnel-shaped passageway inside the body. It connects the mouth and nose to the esophagus (leading to the stomach) and larynx (leading to the trachea and then lungs).
Where is the pharynx?
The pharynx is in the middle of the neck. It starts at the bottom of the skull and is about 4.5 inches long.
What does the pharynx do?
The pharynx has several important jobs. It:
- Carries air to the respiratory system.
- Delivers food and liquid to the digestive system.
- Pushes food into the esophagus so it’s not breathed in.
- Equalizes pressure in the ears and drains fluid from the ears.
What are the parts of the pharynx?
The pharynx anatomy includes:
- Nasopharynx: The top part of the throat connects to the nasal cavities (nose) and lets air pass through.
- Oropharynx: The middle part of the throat connects to the oral cavity (mouth). It allows air, food and fluid to pass through.
- Laryngopharynx (or hypopharynx): The bottom part of the throat is near the larynx (or voice box). It regulates the passage of air to the lungs and food and fluid to the esophagus.
The pharynx also contains:
- Tonsils: There are three sets of tonsils. They are located at the back of the throat and base of the tongue. Tonsils are the body’s first defense against infection.
- Auditory (eustachian) tubes: These two tubes connect the ears to the throat. They equalize pressure and help drain fluid.
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions and disorders can affect pharynx function?
The pharynx can be affected by certain health conditions. The most common are:
- Cancer: Types of throat cancer include nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and hypopharyngeal cancer.
- Dysphagia: Dysphagia is trouble swallowing because of muscle weakness, nerve damage or disease.
- Infections: Bacterial and viral infections can cause pain and inflammation in the throat (for example, the common cold, flu, strep throat and mononucleosis).
- Inflammation in the auditory tubes: This can cause earaches and trouble hearing.
- Pharyngitis: Otherwise known as a sore throat, pharyngitis is inflammation of the pharynx.
- Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that may be caused by abnormalities in the pharynx.
- Tonsillitis: Tonsillitis is an infection in the tonsils.
How can I keep my throat healthy?
Some strategies can help protect your pharynx, including:
- Avoid extreme temperatures, like very cold or hot drinks or food.
- Avoid smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke.
- Don’t share items that can spread oral germs and lead to infection (for example, a toothbrush).
- Drink lots of water.
- Use a humidifier, especially in winter or in dry climates.
How can I soothe a sore throat?
- Gargle with warm salt water (one teaspoon of salt dissolved in one cup of warm water).
- Take over-the-counter pain medicine, such as NSAIDs.
- Suck on a popsicle or lozenge.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I call a healthcare provider about throat problems?
If you have symptoms that don’t go away or keep coming back, you should talk to a healthcare provider. They include:
- Ear pain.
- Fever higher than 103°F, which could be a sign of infection.
- Lump in the neck or throat.
- Sore throat that doesn’t go away after a few days.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Weakness or stiffness in the neck.
Your healthcare provider may refer you to a specialist in otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat care).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The pharynx, or throat, is a passageway for air, food and liquid. If you have a sore throat, some home remedies may help. But call a healthcare provider if you have signs of infection or symptoms that won’t go away.
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