What are tonsils and adenoids?

Your tonsils and adenoids are part of your immune system. They’re similar to the lymph nodes found throughout the rest of your body.

Your tonsils are located in the back of your throat. They’re the two round lumps of tissue you see when you open your mouth wide. You can’t easily see your adenoids, but they’re found in the upper part of your nasal cavity.

Read on to learn more about how your tonsils and adenoids function and why some people have them removed.

Both your tonsils and adenoids help to trap pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, that enter your mouth or nose. They contain immune cells that produce antibodies that kill these pathogens before they can spread to the rest of your body.

Your adenoids are also covered by a layer of mucus and hairlike structures called cilia. The cilia work to push nasal mucus down your throat and into your stomach.

In addition, your tonsils and adenoids continue to grow until you’re between the ages of 3 and 7. Then, they start shrinking as you approach your teenage years. They may almost completely disappear in many cases.

Tonsils and adenoids often become enlarged or inflamed when they’re fighting a pathogen. However, some children have enlarged tonsils and adenoids without any underlying cause. Experts aren’t sure why this happens, but there may be a genetic link.

When your tonsils and adenoids are enlarged, you may have other symptoms as well, such as:

  • voice changes
  • trouble breathing through your nose
  • loud breathing or snoring
  • trouble sleeping
  • a runny nose

Underlying infections that can cause enlarged tonsils and adenoids include:

Tonsillitis and peritonsillar abscesses can also be caused by complications of these infections.

Non-infectious things can also irritate your tonsils or adenoids, causing them to enlarge. These include:

Sometimes, tonsils or adenoids should be removed. This is usually due to:

  • recurring tonsillitis
  • blockages that cause snoring or sleep apnea
  • tonsil cancer

While your tonsils and adenoids are your body’s first line of defense against many pathogens, they aren’t the only ones. Having your tonsils or adenoids removed, especially as an adult, usually doesn’t have much of an impact on your immune system.

The procedure itself is usually straightforward and done on an outpatient basis. You’ll be placed under general anesthesia while your doctor removes your tonsils, adenoids, or both. Following surgery, you might have some pain and inflammation for up to two weeks. Your doctor will likely prescribe some medication to help with the pain as you heal.

In the days following your procedure, you’ll need to stick to cold, soft foods, such as ice cream or yogurt. It’s also best to try to rest as much as possible for at least a week to reduce your risk of bleeding.

Your tonsils and adenoids are components of your immune system. They help trap pathogens that enter your nose and mouth. They often enlarge in response to irritation or an infection.

If your tonsils or adenoids are frequently infected or causing other symptoms, you may need to have them removed. This is a very common procedure, and most people can return to their usual activities about a week after surgery.