Tonsil stones happen when food particles, bacteria, or mucus get trapped in your tonsils. You may be able to remove them by rinsing your mouth with certain solutions or by eating certain foods.

Tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths, are calcified masses that can form on your palatine tonsils. There are three types of tonsils:

  • palatine – on the sides of your throat
  • pharyngeal (adenoids) – at the back of nasopharynx above the palate
  • lingual – found at the back, or base, of your tongue

What most people call their tonsils are the palatine tonsils, which you can see at the back of your mouth or top of your throat.

Tonsil stones are caused by food particles, bacteria, and mucus getting trapped in small pockets on your tonsils. The particles and bacteria can get trapped due to the structure of one’s tonsils. When this trapped material builds up, it can cause swelling and soreness.

Some complications caused by tonsil stones may include:

  • swelling
  • feeling of an obstruction at the top of your throat
  • foul smell and bad breath from the infection that increases over time
  • pain when swallowing, eating, or drinking

When you first notice your tonsil stones and they’re small, you may be able to remove them with natural remedies. Bacteria and infection are the primary issues behind tonsil stones, so antibacterial and anti-inflammatory treatments may help to remove them.

  • Apple cider vinegar or any vinegar. Dilute with water and gargle. Vinegar is supposed to be able to break down the stones because of its acidic content.
  • Garlic. Studies have shown that garlic has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It may combat bacterial growth and infection.
  • Waterpik. Using a waterpik on the throat after meals might help prevent build up.
  • Cotton swab or finger. If you can see the tonsil stone, you may be able to remove it by gently pressing on the tonsil with a cotton swab. Do this very carefully as it may cause gagging or cause additional infection if done aggressively or if the stone’s larger. Gargle with salt water immediately after you remove a tonsil stone this way. You shouldn’t do this unless the stone is easy to reach and small.
  • Coughing. Depending on the size of the stone, coughing could help to dislodge a stone in some cases.
  • Salt water. One study shows that rinsing with salt water is an effective treatment of oral wounds.

Most of these natural remedies may only work on smaller tonsil stones or to help prevent them from occurring.

Many times, when you have tonsil stones, you won’t know it. They may clear up or be removed in the normal course of eating, drinking, and good oral hygiene. However, if they increase in size, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • white or yellow flecks at the back of your throat that may grow larger over time
  • foul breath
  • sore throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • tonsil swelling
  • ear pain

If your tonsil stones are large, causing you excessive pain, or are obstructing your throat or airway, you should seek medical attention.

Also, if you’ve tried to remedy the stones at home and they don’t go away or keep coming back, you should see a doctor. Trying to scrape them off with a cotton swab or your finger can sometimes make the infection worse. If this happens, you should seek medical attention.

You should see a doctor if your tonsil stones persist, continue to get larger, or if they’re large. If you’re having difficulty breathing, head to the nearest emergency room. You should also see a doctor immediately if you have a combination of the following symptoms of possible tonsil cancer:

  • one tonsil is larger than the other
  • bloody saliva
  • difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • inability to tolerate eating citrus
  • neck pain
  • swelling or lump in the neck

Good oral hygiene can help prevent tonsil stones. Brush, floss, and rinse regularly. Many times, tonsil stones aren’t noticeable and will dislodge themselves.

However, if they’re large enough for you to see, you can try to remove them at home. If these remedies don’t work, or the symptoms make your routine uncomfortable, you should make an appointment to see a doctor.