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Tonsil Stones

What are tonsil stones?

Tonsil stones are hard yellow or white formations that are located on or within the tonsils.

It’s common for people with tonsil stones to not even realize they have them. Tonsil stones aren’t always easily visible and they can range from rice- to pea-sized. Tonsil stones rarely cause larger health complications. However, sometimes they can grow into larger tonsilloliths which can cause your tonsils to swell.

Pictures of tonsil stones

What causes tonsil stones?

Causes

Your tonsils are made up of crevices, tunnels, and tonsil crypts. Different types of debris, like dead cells, mucus, saliva, and food can get trapped and build up in these pockets. Bacteria and fungi feed on the buildup and contribute a distinct odor. Over time, the debris calcifies to varying degrees of hardness. When this forms, it’s known as a tonsil stone. Some people will have only one tonsil stone, while others will have many smaller formations.

Potential causes of tonsil stones include:

  • bad dental hygiene
  • having large tonsils
  • chronic sinus issues

Symptoms of tonsil stones

Symptoms

Although it may be difficult to see tonsil stones, there are symptoms that may accompany them.

Symptoms of tonsil stones include:

  • bad breath
  • sore throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • ear pain
  • swollen tonsils
  • white or yellow debris on the tonsil

Smaller tonsil stones may not result in any symptoms, but they’re more prevalent than larger tonsil stones.

Preventing tonsil stones

Prevention

Tonsil stones commonly occur on a regular basis. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent them. These include:

  • Practice good oral hygiene, including cleaning the bacteria off the back of your tongue when you brush your teeth.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Gargle salt water, which can prevent tonsil stone formation and eliminate the odor they cause.
  • Drink the recommended daily requirement of water and stay hydrated.
  • If your tonsils cause you regular discomfort, ask your doctor about treatment options.

Tonsil stone removal

Treatment

Most tonsilloliths are harmless, but many people want to remove them because they can smell bad or cause discomfort. Treatments range from home remedies to medical procedures.

Gargling

Gargling vigorously with salt water can ease throat discomfort and may help dislodge tonsil stones. Dissolve 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt in 8 ounces warm water and gargle.

Cough

You may first discover that you have tonsil stones when you cough one up. Energetic coughing can help loosen stones.

Manual removal

Talk to your doctor before considering removing tonsil stones with tools such as a cotton swab or toothbrush. Your tonsils are delicate tissues so it’s important to be gentle. Manually removing tonsil stones can be risky and lead to complications.

Laser tonsil cryptolysis

During this procedure, a laser is used to eliminate the crypts where tonsil stones lodge. It’s often performed under local anesthesia. Discomfort and recovery time are usually minimal.

Coblation cryptolysis

In coblation cryptolysis, radio waves transform a salt solution into charged ions. These ions can cut through tissue. As with lasers, coblation cryptolysis reduces tonsil crypts but without the same burning sensation.

Tonsillectomy

The surgical removal of tonsils may be achieved by use of a scalpel, laser, or coblation device. Performing this surgery for tonsil stones is controversial. Doctors who recommend tonsillectomy tend to use it for severe, chronic cases and after all other means have been exhausted.

Antibiotics

In some cases, antibiotics can be used to treat tonsil stones. Antibiotics can be used to eliminate the bacteria that play a crucial role in the tonsil stones’ development and growth.

The downside of antibiotics is that they won’t treat the underlying cause that’s resulting in the stones, and they come with their own potential side effects. They also shouldn’t be used in the long term, meaning the tonsil stones will likely return.

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Complications of tonsil stones

Complications

While complications stemming from tonsil stones are rare, they are possible. The biggest complication that may result from tonsil stones is damaged tonsils.

Damaging the tonsils is most likely to happen when you try to remove tonsil stones manually at home with a probe. The probe (cotton swab or tooth brush) is often pushed too far or used too aggressively.

Tonsil stones linked to tonsil infections may also require surgery, which can have complications including excessive bleeding or infection.

Outlook

Outlook

Tonsil stones are a common problem that may affect a large part of our population. Though they can bring a host of symptoms, tonsil stones rarely result in serious complications. While prevention methods and natural removal of the stones are possible, those who experience recurring tonsil stones in spite of taking precautions may benefit from a consultation with an ENT, who can discuss surgical options with you.

For those prone to tonsil stones, practicing good dental hygiene, staying hydrated, and gargling salt water could help prevent the formation of future stones, or at least keep their symptoms at bay.

Recovery period after tonsil removal

Recovery time will depend on how much of your tonsils are removed or resurfaced. Recovery time from a full tonsillectomy can take 10 days to two weeks. 

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