The adenoids can cause problems if they become enlarged. Fortunately, they’re not an essential part of the immune system, and they can generally be treated by removing them.
Adenoids are a small patch of tissue located at the top of the throat behind the nasal cavity. They are similar to the tonsils and located right above them. Your tonsils can be seen if you look at the back of your throat, but the adenoids aren’t directly visible.
Both adenoids and tonsils are part of the immune system, which helps to prevent and fight infection in your body.
Adenoids are present at birth. They grow until a child is between the ages of 3 and 5. Normally, they begin to shrink after around age 7. They shrink considerably in adulthood.
They’re located in the passage that connects the back of the nasal cavity to the throat. They produce antibodies to help your body fight off infections. During the early years, adenoids help protect infants from infection by trapping bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the nose.
Adenoids that become infected usually become enlarged, but return to their normal size when the infection subsides. However, in some instances, the adenoids remain enlarged even after the infection is gone.
Enlarged adenoids can also be caused by allergies. Some children have enlarged adenoids from birth.
Enlarged adenoids can cause a number of symptoms, including:
- blocked, stuffy nose
- sleep apnea (pauses in breathing during sleep)
- mouth breathing
- sore throat
- difficulty swallowing
- swollen glands in the neck
- “glue ear,” or otitis media with effusion (fluid buildup in the middle ear, which can cause hearing problems)
- cracked lips and dry mouth (from breathing problems)
The doctor will first ask about the symptoms your child is experiencing. Then your child will receive a physical exam. The doctor will insert a small, flexible telescope (known as an endoscope) through the nose to view the adenoids.
Depending on what your doctor finds, an X-ray exam of the throat may be necessary.
In severe cases, your child may need to undergo a sleep study. This will determine if they’re suffering from sleep apnea.
During the study, your child will sleep overnight at a facility while their breathing and brain activity are monitored using electrodes. The study is painless, but it can be difficult for some children to sleep in a strange place.
Treatment depends on how severe the condition is. If your child’s enlarged adenoids aren’t infected, the doctor may not recommend surgery. Instead, the doctor may choose to simply wait and see if the adenoids shrink on their own as your child gets older.
In other cases, your doctor may recommend medication, such as a nasal steroid, to shrink enlarged adenoids. However, it’s common for enlarged adenoids to be removed if they continue to cause problems despite treatment with medications.
The procedure is fairly simple and doesn’t have many risks. This surgery is called an adenoidectomy. Learn more about adenoid removal.
If a child has been having frequent tonsil infections, the doctor might remove the tonsils as well. The tonsils and adenoids are often removed at the same time, but not always. Tonsillectomy does come with increased risks and a more significant recovery.
The adenoids may need to be removed if your child is experiencing repeated infections that lead to sinus and ear infections. Adenoids that are very badly swollen can also lead to infections or middle ear fluid, which can temporarily cause hearing loss.
Your child will be given a mild sedative before surgery to help calm them. They will then be placed under general anesthesia. The surgery lasts no more than two hours.
After the adenoids are removed, your child might experience:
- a sore throat
- bad breath
- a blocked nose
Your child may also receive a mild pain reliever for the first few days. Symptoms should clear up in a few weeks.
Although enlarged adenoids usually appear in childhood, they may develop in adults on rare occasions. This can be a result of irritation from air pollution or smoking. In some cases, sinus tumors, lymphomas, or HIV are associated with enlarged adenoids in adults.
It’s common for children to have enlarged adenoids. Be sure to have your child examined as soon as possible if you notice that they are experiencing any of the symptoms of enlarged adenoids. Enlarged adenoids are a very treatable condition, and some cases can be treated with a simple antibiotic.