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What you need to know about a little infection called epiglottitis

Sarah Silverman almost died last week from a terribly unfunny freak throat infection, but true to form, the comedian found a way to make it both hilarious and thought provoking.

File this under Jeopardy! categories that don’t exist but totally should: I’ll take “weirdo body parts I didn’t even know I had” for $500, Alex! Answer: This little flap covers your trachea and prevents food from going down your windpipe, but sometimes it goes rogue and tries to kill you out of nowhere. Question: What is the epiglottis?

No, seriously, what is that thing? And how could such a tiny thing nearly kill a woman in her prime?

When Sarah Silverman posted about her weeklong stay in the ICU and brush with death thanks to an infected epiglottis, most of us had two immediate reactions: gratitude that the funny lady was still here, and confusion because most of us have replaced everything we learned in high school physiology with random trivia about Real Housewives and the Kardashians. (No shame from me — I know more about Brandi Glanville than I know about some of my blood relatives.) But Silverman’s condition is one we all should know more about, as infections of the epiglottis affect over 200,000 Americans each year and can be deadly if not treated immediately.

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Your epiglottis can become inflamed due to an injury to your throat, spider bites to your face or neck, heat damage (another reason to not drink too-hot coffee!), cancer and inhaled drug use. But by far the most common causes are bacterial or viral infections, which is what happened to Silverman. Most cases are brought on by HiB, or haemophilus influenzae type B, a common bacteria that can cause severe infections, including pneumonia and meningitis. There is a vaccine for it, but it wasn’t introduced until 1987, too late for the 45-year-old to have been immunized against it as a child.

Epiglottal infections are most common in children but can affect people of any age. Once inflamed, the little flap of skin can quickly swell, blocking off your airway and causing you to suffocate to death unless immediately treated.

At first symptoms may be mild — Silverman originally went to her doctor for what she thought was just a bad sore throat — and can include changes to the voice, difficulty speaking and swallowing, drooling and a fever in addition to the pain. Eventually the swelling of the epiglottis can become so severe that it causes respiratory distress, which can quickly turn life-threatening.

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The infection is often treated first with antibiotics, but if the respiratory crisis is severe, then more drastic measures must be taken. Silverman, for instance, was placed on a breathing tube for a week while her body fought off the infection.

But while her condition was incredibly serious, her mood remained characteristically light. “I stopped a nurse — like it was an emergency — furiously wrote down a note and gave it to her,” she wrote on Facebook about her semiconscious time in the ICU. “When she looked at it, [the note] just said, ‘Do you live with your mother?’ next to a drawing of a penis.” Which is exactly why Sarah Silverman is a national treasure! (Dear Sarah, I’m so glad you’re feeling better!)

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