What Is the Function of the Oropharynx?

function-oropharynx Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The oropharynx accepts air from the nasopharynx and passes it to the laryngeal pharynx. It also accepts food from the mouth and passes it to the esophagus. The oropharynx resides below the soft palate and above the epiglottis. Taken in totality, the pharynx connects the oral cavity and nasal cavity with the esophagus and windpipe.

The entire structure’s purpose is to ensure that air travels through the windpipe and food and water travel through the esophagus. Muscular contractions help to propel food along and into the esophagus. It is very important that the oropharynx and associated structures prevent food or liquids from entering the lungs. If this happens, choking may ensue, potentially with fatal consequences. While the oropharynx also tries to prevent air from traveling down into the esophagus, this does not cause serious problems if it occurs. Most commonly, humans or other animals who allow air to enter their stomach suffer from a stomach ache that is relieved when the subject belches.

The oropharynx often becomes cancerous. When it does, it usually produces squamous cell carcinomas. Risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include human papilloma virus, smoking tobacco products, excessive alcohol consumption, and a diet low in fruits and vegetables.