woman stones with tonsil symptoms

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Tonsil stones – symptoms, causes and removal

  • Up to 10% of people will have tonsil stones in their lifetime.
  • Good oral hygiene is the best way to prevent tonsil stones.

You probably know about kidney stones or gallstones. But did you know you can also develop stones in your tonsils?  Here’s what you need to know about the causes, treatments and prevention of tonsil stones.  

What are tonsil stones?

Tonsil stones—sometimes called throat stones, or tonsilliths in medical terminology—are hard, calcified deposits that form on your tonsils. What are your tonsils, exactly? They are fleshy pads on both sides of the back of your throat. They are similar to lymph nodes, and are a part your body’s immune system. Your tonsils help to filter bacteria that enter the body through the mouth, and they also produce white blood cells and antibodies that fight disease.

  • Tonsil stones are annoying, but they are rarely harmful.
  • Tonsil stones can be large or small, from the size of a grain of sand up to the size of a grape.
  • Up to 10% of people will have tonsil stones in their lifetime.

Tonsil stone symptoms

Tonsil stones illustration what do tonsil stones look like

How can you tell if you have tonsil stones? Unfortunately, if they are small or hidden within folds of tissue, you may not be able to see them. You may feel tonsil stones in your throat, and that sensation may be irritating but not usually painful. Here are some common symptoms of tonsil stones:

  • Yellowish bumps or dots in the back of the throat
  • Tonsil redness or swelling
  • A tickle, itch or irritation in the back of your mouth or throat
  • Bad breath
  • Cough
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Throat pain
  • Ear pain

In severe cases, tonsil stones can lead to chronic tonsil inflammation or infection of your tonsils, which is called tonsillitis. Tonsillitis symptoms include severe throat pain, feeling sick, swelling of the tonsils, and sometimes a fever.

What causes tonsil stones?

Tonsil stones happen when food or debris gets stuck in the mucous membrane that covers your tonsils, or within folds and crevices on the tonsils. Over time, these deposits harden and become “stones.” Some people have deeper crevices and folds, which makes them more likely to get tonsil stones. Also, people who have a history of tonsil inflammation are more likely to develop tonsil stones.

Poor oral hygiene—that is, not brushing or flossing your teeth regularly—can also contribute. For some people, persistent post-nasal drainage in the throat can increase tonsil stones as well.

How to prevent tonsil stones

The best way to prevent tonsil stones is with good oral hygiene:

  • Brush your teeth after every meal, or at least twice a day.
  • Floss your teeth at least once a day.
  • Brush or scrape your tongue regularly.
  • Rinse and gargle regularly with an alcohol-free mouthwash or warm salt water.
  • Avoid tobacco products.
  • Drink plenty of water, aiming for 8-10 glasses of water daily.

Tonsil stone removal at home

In many cases, tonsil stones may go away on their own. If they don’t, here are a few at-home remedies to get rid of tonsil stones:

  • Gently press them out with a cotton swab or the back of your toothbrush.
  • Wash them out with a low-pressure water irrigator.
  • Use an over-the-counter tonsil stone removal kit, which includes tools to dislodge the stones.

Your tonsils are delicate, and you could cause bleeding or damage if you try to remove tonsil stones too aggressively.  If the tonsil stones are causing significant pain or swelling, you should see your doctor.

Removal and treatment of tonsil stones

For large or severe tonsil stones, or if you have a history of recurring tonsil stones, you may want to meet with an Allina Health ear, nose and throat specialist to discuss surgical removal of the tonsils, or a tonsillectomy.  As with most procedures, there are risks of a tonsillectomy to discuss, such as pain and bleeding.  This is an outpatient procedure, meaning you do not have to stay overnight in a hospital.  A tonsillectomy is the best way to definitively resolve tonsil stones.

If you think you may have tonsil stones—or if your throat is sore and you’re not sure why—an Allina Health ear, nose and throat specialist can diagnose the problem and recommend the best treatment for you.

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