The Primary Functions of the Larynx

Eating and drinking, breathing and coughing, and talking and singing are all supported by the primary functions of the larynx. The larynx is the part of the throat that keeps food and drink out of the airways during swallowing. During breathing and coughing, the larynx manages airflow in and out of the main airway 1. During singing and talking, the sounds of the voice are produced by modulation of air passing through the vocal cords, which are key components of the larynx and all its primary functions.

Eating and Drinking

The primary function of the larynx during eating and drinking is to prevent choking. The larynx is the gateway to the trachea, the main airway to the lungs. The trachea and the esophagus -- the tube that carries food to the stomach -- are close together. Both are below the area where the mouth becomes the throat. Swallowing begins a series of automatic motions that pull the larynx upward and forward and lower a flap over the opening of the larynx. These motions prevent choking by guiding food and drink into the esophagus and away from the trachea.

Breathing and Coughing

The primary function of the larynx during breathing and coughing is airflow management. During normal breathing, the larynx is at rest and the vocal cords are partially open. When the body needs more oxygen, sensors in the larynx are stimulated so that the laryngeal muscles open the vocal cords more fully during inhalation and close them briefly during exhalation. This permits the lungs to absorb more oxygen. If unwelcome particles or noxious fumes threaten the airway, sensors in the larynx can stimulate a cough reflex. The nerves and muscles in the larynx control the opening and closing of the vocal cords as needed to help clear the airway.

Vocal Sounds

Many of the primary functions of the larynx are controlled by reflexes that protect the airways. However, the primary functions of the larynx associated with voice are learned and can be controlled voluntarily. When it's time to talk, whisper, shout, hum or sing, the brain sends a message to the muscles of the larynx. They go to work moving the vocal cords into the right positions to create vibrations in the exhaled breath. Words will follow once these vibrations are further modified by the tongue, teeth and lips as they leave the mouth.

More To Learn

The larynx is essential to life. While the primary functions of the larynx -- particularly those involving voice -- have long been known, the finer details of many of its mechanisms remain a leading topic of research across disciplines around the world.