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What is the Nasopharynx?

By Claudette M. Pendleton
Updated May 17, 2024
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The nasopharynx is basically the upper-most part of the human throat. It sits just behind the soft palate in the mouth and connects the nasal passages with the larger pharynx, which is the throat system as a whole. Medical professionals usually use the word “pharynx” to describe the throat, and the name “nasopharynx” is a hybrid term that largely came about because of the proximity to the nasal system. It’s one of the only parts of the throat that always stays open, and in addition to its role in digestion it also serves as a passageway for draining the ears as well as draining fluid from the lymphatic system, a network of nodes that exist throughout the body. This part of the throat is often more susceptible to cancers and other ailments than parts lower down that don’t play as many roles with as many systems. Prognosis necessarily depends on the individual patient, but in most cases, these cancers are fairly easy to treat provided they’re caught early enough.

Specific Location

This part of the throat sits at the bottom of the nose and the very back of the mouth, usually just behind the uvula, the dangling, fleshy part marking the end of the soft palate. The soft palate is supple region located in the far back region of the throat at the roof of the mouth. The pharynx extends all the way from the mouth down to the esophagus and digestive tract.

Pharynx Basics

In addition to the nasal connection, there are two other components that make up the pharynx: the oropharynx and the hypopharynx. The oropharynx is positioned at the rear of the mouth and unites the top of the throat and the mouth. The hypopharynx, also referred to as the laryngopharynx, is the part of the throat that joins to the esophagus.

Role in the Lymphatic System

This part of the throat also has an important connection to the larger lymphatic system. In humans as well as in many animals, the lymphatic system is a network of nodes and glands that shuttle specialized fluids throughout the body. These fluids play an important part in the immune response and disease fighting capabilities. They shuttle out bacteria, for instance, and cells within the system known as lymphocytes actively fight and identify harmful growths and cell mutations. This function means that the nodes themselves are exposed to a number of different harmful things and are, in turn, susceptible to damage themselves.

The upper-most part of the pharynx often serves as a drainage route for lymphatic fluid in the sinuses and jaw. While it’s not usually considered a true part of the larger lymph system, it does serve as an accessory. Problems in the lymphatic system can spread to the throat and larger digestive system as a consequence, though this is usually only something that happens over a large span of time, usually several months. Infections that are caught early enough are typically much easier to contain and treat.

Cancers and Other Problems

The broad exposure of the nasopharynx to different fluids as well as its high rate of cell growth means that it is sometimes a site of cancerous growths. When cancer occurs in this area, it is referred to as nasopharyngeal cancer or nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). These cancers develop in the top portion of the throat, and may affect a person's nasal passages and the upper respiratory area, as well as a person's hearing. Other throat cancers can develop in the oropharynx and hypopharynx regions. These are referred to as oropharyngeal cancer and hypopharyngeal cancer, respectively.

Both are serious, but can usually be treated fairly successfully. The key with this sort of cancer particularly is early diagnosis. If the problem is not identified, the location at the opening to both the sinus and ear cavities and the larger digestive tract, not to mention the lymphatic system, means that cancer can spread quickly and extensively.

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