Tonsil stones are hard, yellow or white deposits located on or inside the tonsils—they are also called tonsilloliths.

How do tonsil stones affect the tonsils and overall health, and how can they be treated and prevented? Let’s take a look, starting with the basic function of healthy tonsils.

Tonsil Basics

The tonsils are gland-like structures in the back of the throat, with one located in a pocket on each side. They’re made of tissue containing lymphocytes, cells in the body that help ward off infections. Tonsils are believed to play a role in the immune system— they’re like a safety net, trapping bacteria and virus particles before they can get down the throat.

However, it’s relatively common for the tonsils to cause problems, and evidence indicates that people who have their tonsils removed see no change in their risk of bacterial or viral infections.

 

Causes

Tonsil stones are caused by the hardening of debris. The tonsils are full of little crevices where bacteria and other materials can become trapped, and they then become concentrated in white formations inside the tonsil pockets. It’s common for many people to have small tonsil stones, but larger and solidified tonsilloliths are much rarer.

Symptoms

Many people with tonsil stones have no symptoms, and even certain large stones are only discovered during an X-ray or CT scan for some other cause. Larger tonsilloliths may lead to symptoms including:

  • • Bad breath: This is one of the primary indicators of tonsil stones, and researchers have suggested that tonsil stones can be considered as a potential cause in unsolved bad breath cases.
  • • Sore throat
  • • White debris: Some stones are visible in the back of the throat as a lump of solid white material, though this won’t always be the case.
  • • Trouble swallowing foods or liquids
  • • Ear pain (due to shared nerve pathways with the tonsils)
  • • Swelling in the tonsil

Treatments

Treatment for a tonsil stone depends on the size of the stone and the potential for it to cause discomfort or harm. Treatment options include:

  • No treatment: Many cases do not cause symptoms, and even some of those that do require no special treatment.
  • At-home removal: Some people can dislodge tonsil stones at home using picks or swabs.
  • Salt water gargles: Gargling with warm salt water can help ease discomfort from tonsillitis, which often comes with tonsil stones.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics can help for many people, though they can’t treat the underlying issue that causes tonsil stones and they may have side effects.
  • Surgical removal: If stones are large and causing significant issues, a surgeon may need to remove them. This can sometimes be done with a local numbing agent to avoid general anesthesia.

Prevention

Tonsil stones are more common in cases of chronic tonsillitis, and the only foolproof way to prevent them is to remove the tonsils via a process called tonsillectomy. These procedures are performed under general anesthesia.

There are a few other steps you can take to help prevent tonsil stones:

  • • Practice good oral hygiene, including cleaning bacteria off the back of the tongue while brushing teeth
  • • Stop smoking
  • • Gargle salt water
  • • Stay hydrated

If your tonsils regularly give you issues, speak to your doctor about options. If you have tonsil stones that are causing noticeable symptoms, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan.

Our specialists have received extensive training and completed a variety of procedures, offering the best ENT care for our patients. As a part of the Revere Health system, our ENT doctors also have access to a variety of specialties to ensure that patients receive coordinated care.

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