The larynx is a cartilaginous structure inferior to the laryngopharynx that connects the pharynx to the trachea and helps regulate the volume of air that enters and leaves the lungs (Figure). The structure of the larynx is formed by several pieces of cartilage. Three large cartilage pieces—the thyroid cartilage (anterior), epiglottis (superior), and cricoid cartilage (inferior)—form the major structure of the larynx. The thyroid cartilage is the largest piece of cartilage that makes up the larynx. The thyroid cartilage consists of the laryngeal prominence, or “Adam’s apple,” which tends to be more prominent in males. The thick cricoid cartilage forms a ring, with a wide posterior region and a thinner anterior region. Three smaller, paired cartilages—the arytenoids, corniculates, and cuneiforms—attach to the epiglottis and the vocal cords and muscle that help move the vocal cords to produce speech.
The epiglottis, attached to the thyroid cartilage, is a very flexible piece of elastic cartilage that covers the opening of the trachea (see Figure). When in the “closed” position, the unattached end of the epiglottis rests on the glottis. The glottis is composed of the vestibular folds, the true vocal cords, and the space between these folds (Figure). A vestibular fold, or false vocal cord, is one of a pair of folded sections of mucous membrane. A true vocal cord is one of the white, membranous folds attached by muscle to the thyroid and arytenoid cartilages of the larynx on their outer edges. The inner edges of the true vocal cords are free, allowing oscillation to produce sound. The size of the membranous folds of the true vocal cords differs between individuals producing voices with different pitch ranges. Folds in males tend to be larger than those in females which create a deeper voice. The act of swallowing causes the pharynx and larynx to lift upward allowing the pharynx to expand and the epiglottis of the larynx to swing downward closing the opening to the trachea. These movements produce a larger area for food to pass through while preventing food and beverages from entering the trachea.
Continuous with the laryngopharynx, the superior portion of the larynx is lined with stratified squamous epithelium, transitioning into pseudostratified ciliated columnar epithelium that contains goblet cells. Similar to the nasal cavity and nasopharynx, this specialized epithelium produces mucus to trap debris and pathogens as they enter the trachea. The cilia beat the mucus upward towards the laryngopharynx where it can be swallowed down the esophagus.