Located in our throats, tonsils are one of those parts of the body that go fairly unnoticed until something is wrong. These lumps of tissue are located in the back of the throat, one on each side. The tonsils are part of the lymphatic system of our bodies, the system that fights infection and keeps body fluids balanced. If the tonsils become inflamed or infected, it can hurt other systems of our bodies.
Tonsillitis is one of the most common conditions that affect the tonsils. It is an inflammation or swelling of the tonsils usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Tonsillitis is most common during cold and flu season, but can develop anytime if the right germs invade the body. It’s also most common in children over the age of two and under the age of 15, but adults can also contract the condition. Tonsillitis itself is not contagious, but usually the viruses and bacteria that cause it are contagious, like the bacteria that causes strep throat. The symptoms of tonsillitis are:
• Severe sore throat
• Red, swollen tonsils
• Trouble or painful swallowing
• White or yellow coating of the tonsils
• Swollen glands in the neck
• Bad breath
While strep throat, one of the conditions caused by strep bacteria, is a type of tonsillitis, some people are more susceptible to it than others. Those with recurrent tonsillitis (more than seven episodes a year) may need to get their tonsils removed at some point during childhood. These individuals who are more prone to frequent tonsillitis often have low levels of antibodies in their blood to protect them against a specific type of germ or virus. This is a natural occurrence in some people and may be linked to genetics. Because tonsils produce disease-fighting white blood cells, they act as the immune system’s first line of defense for bacteria and viruses that enter through our mouths. A child’s immune system has had less time to develop immunities to all of the bacteria in our world, and therefore may be more vulnerable to tonsillitis.
Tonsillectomies are surgeries that remove the tonsils if they are becoming swollen or inflamed too often and causing other issues. Patients with recurrent tonsillitis are good candidates for this surgery, as well as patients with types of tonsillitis that do not get better with antibiotics, or have tonsils so swollen that they are causing trouble breathing or swallowing. The surgical procedure for tonsillectomy is fairly simple and comes with minimal risks. It is usually an outpatient procedure and is performed under general anesthesia. Children seem to recover faster from tonsillectomies than adults do. Surgeons performing tonsillectomies cut out the tonsils using a blade or a specialized tool that uses high-energy heat to remove the tonsil tissue. Pain is common after a tonsillectomy but recovery is helped by:
• Taking all medications as prescribed by the hospital staff
• Getting plenty of fluids like water
• Eating bland foods that are easy to swallow, like applesauce or broth. Avoiding acidic, spicy or crunchy foods is also a good idea
• Getting enough bed rest for several days after surgery. Strenuous activities should be avoided for two weeks after surgery.
Tonsil stones are another condition of the tonsils, but may go unseen or unfelt for some time. Tonsil stones are hard white or yellow formations located on or in the tonsils. They aren’t easy to see, and can range from very small to the size of a grape. They rarely cause complications or problems, but depending on their size can lead to swelling of the tonsils.
Because our throats are made up of many pits and crevices, different types of debris (like dead cells, saliva and food) can get stuck in these crevices and build up. Bacteria feeds on this buildup and can cause an odor. Over time, this chunk of debris may harden into a stone-like substance. Symptoms of tonsil stones are:
• Bad breath
• Trouble swallowing
• Ear pain
• Ongoing couch
• Swollen tonsils
• White or yellow debris on the tonsils
Tonsil stones may be able to be removed, but it’s easier to prevent them. Good dental hygiene, gargling with salt water, quitting smoking and drinking plenty of water are the best ways to prevent tonsil stones. If you do develop one, your physician may prescribe antibiotics or another type of less invasive therapy to dissolve the stones, like laser therapy or coblation therapy.
Tonsil stones themselves are not inherently dangerous but can lead to complications with the tonsils they reside next to. They are a common problem, but if they get out of hand, can lead to dangerous disruptions in the body.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.