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 – at the back of your throat
- 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 often get trapped from improper oral hygiene. When this trapped material builds up, it can cause swelling and soreness. Many people have tonsil stones removed when they become painful. Some complications caused by tonsil stones may include:
- feeling of an obstruction at the top of your throat
- foul smell and bad breath from the infection that increases over time
- difficulty breathing if they become big enough to block the airway
- 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.
- Cotton swab or finger. If you can see the tonsil stone, you may be able to reach it with your finger or a cotton swab and scrape it off. Do this very carefully as it may 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 to dislodge a stone in some cases.
- Essential oils. Some oils have anti-inflammatory or antibacterial properties. Examples are myrrh, thieves oil, and lemongrass. These may be able to help reduce or eliminate your tonsil stones. Dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil and place one or two drops on a toothbrush before brushing the stones. Be sure to follow the directions for each specific oil. Because of the number of bacteria, it’s recommended that you don’t use this toothbrush going forward.
- Salt water. One study shows that rinsing with salt water is an effective treatment of oral wounds.
- Yogurt. Eating yogurt that contains probiotics may be able to counteract the bacteria causing tonsil stones.
- Apples. The acidic content of apples may help combat the bacteria in a tonsil stone.
- Carrots. Chewing carrots helps increase saliva and the production of natural antibacterial processes. This may help reduce or eliminate your tonsil stones.
- Onions. Onions are believed to contain strong antibacterial properties. Including them in your diet may help prevent or eliminate tonsil stones.
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.