What Are Tonsils?

Your tonsils are tissues in the back of your throat. They’re part of your lymphatic system, and they trap germs and bacteria, preventing them from entering your body via your mouth.

Because of their location in your body, your tonsils are sensitive to the effects of bacteria, viruses, poor dental hygiene, and chronic sinus issues. Two conditions that are common in tonsils are tonsil stones and tonsillitis.

What Are Tonsil Stones?

Your tonsils are made of what are called tonsil crypts, which are simply tunnels, pits, and crevices. Food, dead cells, mucus, and saliva get trapped in your tonsil crypts and, over time, lead to buildup. This debris eventually hardens into a tonsil stone, also called a tonsillolith.

What Are the Symptoms of Tonsil Stones?

Not all tonsil stones cause symptoms, especially in the case of small ones, which are the more common type. Large tonsil stones can cause symptoms such as:

  • white or yellow debris on the tonsil
  • sore throat
  • bad breath
  • trouble swallowing
  • ongoing cough
  • ear pain
  • swollen tonsils

What Is Tonsil Stones Treatment Like?

If they’re not causing discomfort or a bad odor, there’s no need for removing tonsil stones. If you do need to remove them, however, there are options. One home remedy is gargling vigorously with saltwater, which eases discomfort and might dislodge tonsil stones. If home remedies don’t work or the tonsil stones cause pain and other symptoms, a physician might recommend:

Laser tonsil cryptolysis

A laser is used in this procedure to eliminate the problematic tonsil crypts. Local anesthesia is usually all that is required, and discomfort and recovery time are typically minimal.

Coblation cryptolysis

No heat — and thus no burning sensation — is involved in this procedure, which reduces the tonsil crypts. Radio waves are used to transform a salt solution into charged ions, which can cut through tissue.


This is typically only recommended for severe, chronic cases, and then only after all other methods have been tried without success. See below for more on the tonsillectomy.

What Is Tonsillitis?

If they become infected and swollen — this is known as tonsilitis — it can lead to a sore throat as well as painful swallowing. It’s more likely to affect children than any other age group, but people at any age can develop a tonsil infection.

What Are the Symptoms of Tonsillitis?

As mentioned already, a sore throat and painful swallowing are common symptoms. Other common signs are red and swollen tonsils, tonsils with white or yellow patches, fever, tender lymph nodes, bad breath, a scratchy voice, or a headache.

See your doctor right away, however, if you have difficulty breathing or swallowing, or if you begin drooling.

What Causes Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria, allergies, or upper respiratory problems. Viruses are the most common cause, but in a close second place is strep throat, which is caused by the Streptococcus bacterium. In fact, it’s so common many doctors test for strep throat as a general rule when they diagnose a patient with a tonsil infection.

How Is Tonsillitis Diagnosed?

A physical exam, plus running the test for strep, is how tonsillitis is diagnosed:

  • Looking at your throat using a lighted instrument
  • Checking for strep throat
  • Checking for scarlatina, a rash known to accompany some cases of strep throat
  • Checking your neck for swollen lymph nodes
  • Listening to your breathing with a stethoscope
  • Checking for signs of other health issues known to enlarge the tonsils

How Is Tonsillitis Treated?

Treating a viral infection
In the case of a viral infection, it should clear up in 7–10 days. At-home care strategies should be sufficient to minimize discomfort, such as:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drink warm fluids (broth, tea with honey)
  • Have cold treats, such as popsicles
  • Gargle warm saltwater several times a day
  • Suck on cough drops
  • Avoid irritants such as cigarette smoke

Treating a bacterial infection

A bacterial infection such as strep throat is treated with antibiotics.

Treating a persistent infection

If tonsilitis persists or recurs frequently, your doctor might recommend a tonsillectomy, which is surgical removal of the tonsils.

Tonsillectomy is usually a simple outpatient procedure; you should be able to return home the same day. If you already have a complex medical condition or complications arise during surgery, however, you might have to remain in the hospital overnight. Recovery usually takes seven to 10 days.

Call ENT Physicians and Surgeonss at (603) 669-0831 for more information or to schedule an appointment.