If you still have your tonsils, you probably don’t think much about them. But if you are struggling with bad breath or throat irritation, grab a mirror, open up, and say, “aww.” You could have a common problem known as tonsilloliths or tonsil stones.
Causes and Symptoms of Tonsil Stones
Your tonsils, those small, fleshy bits on either side of your throat, help detect and filter the bacteria and viruses that enter your mouth. They do this by producing white blood cells and antibodies. The tonsils also have craters and grooves, called crypts, that can trap food, bacteria and other particles. As saliva and your white blood cells attack those particles, they can begin to calcify and harden, turning into tonsil stones.
“Often, these stones are small and harmless, but for others they can cause noticeable problems, such as throat irritation, whitish looking stones on your tonsils and bad breath (halitosis),” said Bruce Stewart, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson. “When you disturb or remove a tonsil stone, it can often produce a foul smell and taste in your mouth.”
Bad breath and throat irritation can also be a sign of tonsillitis or strep throat. The big difference is that tonsillitis is caused by a virus or bacteria and generally comes with a fever, headache, swollen neck glands and inflamed, red tonsils.
Prevention and Treatment
Generally, tonsil stones are not harmful, so if they aren’t giving you trouble, you are best to just leave them alone. But if you want to treat and prevent future stones, Dr. Stewart recommended these preventative at-home strategies:
- Brushing teeth and tongue
- Gargling after eating
- Use Waterpiks to flush out food and debris
- Gently express the stones using a cotton swab or toothbrush
“If you are getting tonsil stones often and they are providing discomfort, a tonsillectomy is an option,” Dr. Stewart said. “This is a painful surgery and you should only consider it if you are sure you don’t want to keep cleaning your tonsils.”
Talk to your healthcare provider if you are experiencing severe and prolonged symptoms, so they can rule out any other causes and provide a personalized treatment plan. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.