Tonsil Stones (Tonsilloliths): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Good oral hygiene can prevent debris from getting trapped in your tonsils

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Tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths, are clumps or lumps that form when debris becomes trapped in pockets in the tonsils—the mounds of tissue in the back of the throat. A tonsil with a tonsil stone may look like it has a crack with a small, pebble-like mass wedged inside it.

Tonsil stones occur when debris such as dead skin cells, white blood cells, and bacteria become saturated with saliva and calcify. While tonsilloliths are generally harmless, they may occasionally cause discomfort such as a sore throat, feeling like there is something stuck in the throat, dry mouth, and bad breath (halitosis).

Individuals who have these stone-like balls in their tonsils are also said to have cryptic tonsils, fetid tonsils, or chronic caseous tonsillitis.

Tonsil Stone Symptoms

You may be looking at a tonsil stone if you cough up something that is small, is hard like a stone, and has a bad odor. Tonsil stones range from white to yellow in color.

In place on your tonsils, if you don't know what they are, they can sometimes look like pus. You may not always be able to see these stones until they are larger in size.

Halitosis associated with tonsil stones is sometimes severe since a common bacteria that contributes to the formation of tonsil stones is known to produce sulfur. Disturbing or removing a tonsil stone can sometimes release this putrid odor.

What Causes Tonsil Stones?

Chronic inflammation can cause the formation of crypts and fibrosis (thickening and scarring) to occur allowing an ideal location for stones to form. People who have had a tonsillectomy don't typically get tonsil stones even if some of their tonsil tissue grows back.

Age can play a factor in your risk for developing tonsil stones, with children being the least likely to develop them. Teenagers and adults are much more common than children, and it is thought that chronic inflammation from throat or ear infections can put you at higher risk.

Treatment of Tonsilloliths

Using toothpaste and mouthwashes is not enough to get rid of the bad breath associated with tonsil stones. The only way to cure the halitosis is to get rid of the tonsil stones.

Home Treatments

Trying to remove tonsil stones on your own may result in the stones actually becoming pushed further into the tissue, causing more discomfort and problems.

However, in some cases, they can be removed with water irrigators (water picks). These appliances have been shown to be helpful in removing a portion of the tonsil stones. However, it is not generally accepted that the stone is completely removed, and you will likely still have any symptoms, like bad breath.

In addition to water irrigation, Q-tips are sometimes used to remove stones. Gently press a wet cotton swab against the stone and carefully try to dislodge the stone. Do not force the stone out or rub too hard, though.

You should not try to remove tonsil stones with sharp objects, because you could accidentally damage tonsillar tissue. The tonsils are also in close proximity to major blood vessels.

Treatment by a Healthcare Provider

Getting rid of tonsil stones may be achieved via a procedure called CO(2) laser cryptolysis. Rarely, a tonsillectomy is needed.

While a tonsillectomy would subsequently remove any tonsil stones, surgical removal of the tonsils is not generally a compelling enough reason for this surgery. Your physician can review the benefit versus the risks associated with a tonsillectomy for tonsil stone removal.

Once tonsil stones are eliminated or removed, you may be able to able to avoid recurrence through an oral hygiene routine that includes daily warm saline mouth rinses. Mouthwashes such as Listerine may also be good for tonsil stones.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get tonsil stones without tonsils?

    No. If your tonsils have been removed, such as through a tonsillectomy, there is no risk of developing tonsil stones. This is why tonsils are removed in cases of chronic or recurrent tonsilloliths.

  • Can dentists remove tonsil stones?

    Yes. Tonsil stones may be removed by a dentist, oral surgeon, or an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist).

  • Is it OK to swallow tonsil stones?

    Yes. Tonsil stones are not harmful. If they become dislodged, you may swallow them without even knowing it.

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6 Sources
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