Written by Erica Roth | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Tonsillectomy?

Tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the tonsils. Tonsils are two small glands located in the back of your throat. Tonsils house white blood cells to help you fight infection, but sometimes the tonsils themselves become infected.

Frequent tonsil infections, called tonsillitis, might be a reason why you need to have a tonsillectomy. A tonsillectomy can also treat breathing problems, like heavy snoring and sleep apnea.

About Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils that can make your tonsils swell and give you a sore throat. Other symptoms of tonsillitis include fever, trouble swallowing, and swollen glands around your neck. Your doctor may notice that your throat is red and your tonsils are covered in a whitish or yellow coating. Sometimes, the swelling can go away on its own, but in other cases, antibiotics or surgery might be necessary.

Who Needs a Tonsillectomy?

Tonsillitis and the need for tonsillectomies are more common in children than adults. However, people of any age can experience trouble with their tonsils and require surgery.

One case of tonsillitis is not enough to warrant a tonsillectomy. Usually, the surgery is a treatment option for those who are often sick with tonsillitis or strep throat. If you have had more than seven cases of tonsillitis or strep in a year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests you talk to your doctor about a tonsillectomy.

Tonsillectomy can treat other medical problems too, including:

  • breathing problems related to swollen tonsils
  • frequent and loud snoring
  • periods when you stop breathing during sleep (sleep apnea)
  • bleeding of the tonsils
  • trouble swallowing chewy foods, especially meats
  • cancer of the tonsils

Preparing for a Tonsillectomy

The first step of preparing for a tonsillectomy is to stop taking anti-inflammatory medicines two weeks before your surgery. This type of medication includes aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. Drugs of this kind can increase your risk of bleeding during and after your surgery.

You’ll need to fast after midnight before your tonsillectomy. This means no food or water. An empty stomach reduces the risk of feeling nauseous from the anesthetic.

Be sure to plan for your at-home recovery. Someone will need to drive you home and help you for the first couple of days following your tonsillectomy. Most people stay home from work or school for about a week following surgery.

Tonsillectomy Procedure

There are several different ways to remove tonsils. The most common method is called “cold knife steel dissection.” Simply put, your surgeon removes the tonsils with a scalpel.

Another common method for tonsillectomy includes burning away the tissues through a process called cauterization. Ultrasonic vibration (using sound waves) is also used in some tonsillectomy procedures. Tonsillectomies usually take about a half hour.

No matter what surgical method your doctor chooses, you will be asleep with a general anesthetic. You will not be aware of the surgery, and won’t feel any pain. When you wake up after the tonsillectomy, you will be in a recovery room. Medical staff will monitor your blood pressure and heart rate as you wake up. Most people can go home the same day after a successful tonsillectomy.

Tonsillectomy Recovery

Patients unfortunately experience some pain as they recover from a tonsillectomy. A sore throat is the main symptom post-surgery. You might also feel pain in your jaw, ears, or neck. Get plenty of rest, especially in the first two to three days after surgery.

Sip water or eat ice pops to stay hydrated without hurting your throat. Warm, clear broth and applesauce are ideal food choices during early recovery. You can add ice cream, pudding, oatmeal, and other soft foods after a couple of days. Try not to eat anything hard, crunchy, or spicy for several days after a tonsillectomy.

Pain medication can help you feel better during recovery. Take the medicines exactly as your doctor prescribes. Contact your doctor if you experience bleeding or run a fever after a tonsillectomy. Snoring for the first two weeks after the procedure is normal and to be expected. Call your doctor if you have trouble breathing after the first two weeks.

Many people are ready to go back to school or work within two weeks after a tonsillectomy.

Most who have a tonsillectomy have fewer throat infections in the future.

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