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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

The epiglottis is the flap of tissue located just above the windpipe (trachea) that directs the flow of air and food in the throat. When we breathe, the epiglottis moves to allow air into the lungs. When we eat, the epiglottis covers the top of the windpipe, so that food goes into the swallowing tube (esophagus), and not into the lungs.

Epiglottitis is a rare, but potentially life-threatening infection. It causes sudden swelling of the epiglottis, which often worsens rapidly, sometimes within hours. Without timely treatment, the epiglottis can become so large that it blocks the windpipe, making it hard to breathe. This can cause death.

Epiglottitis can occur at any age. Until 1985, epiglottitis occurred most commonly in children aged 3 to 7, but with the development of a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), epiglottitis is now increasingly rare in vaccinated children.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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