Your tonsils, those two little lumps of tissue in the back of your throat, play an important part in the health of your body. But sometimes, they can cause more trouble than they are worth.
When your tonsils continually become a nuisance, it could be time to consider a tonsillectomy, an outpatient surgery to remove your tonsils.
Read on to understand the purpose of tonsils, reasons why you might need to have them removed and what to expect if you need a tonsillectomy.
The purpose of your tonsils
The tonsils are located in the back of your throat, on either side, and are a part of the lymphatic system, which plays a vital role in fighting off diseases.
“Because of their location, they are like an early warning system for our body,” said Bruce Stewart, MD, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist with Banner – University Medicine. “Their main function is to trap bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that you might inhale or ingest while breathing or eating.”
When these germs get trapped in the tonsils, your immune system springs into action, producing white blood cells to attack and destroy the invaders, preventing them from causing further harm to your body.
Sometimes, however, the tonsils can become infected, leading to conditions like tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils).
Why would I need my tonsils removed?
Although tonsillectomies are more common among children, some adults may benefit from the procedure too.
Your health care provider or an ENT specialist may recommend a tonsillectomy in certain situations, including:
1. Recurrent or chronic tonsillitis or strep throat
If you have tonsillitis, you will likely develop a fever along with a very sore throat that makes it painful and difficult to swallow.
Most infections are treated with antibiotics. But if you suffer from chronic infections, a tonsillectomy may be the best treatment option.
“The timing of surgery can vary among doctors, but I recommend surgery to my patients when they’ve had three or more infections in one year,” Dr. Stewart said.
2. Difficulty breathing or swallowing
Similarly, difficulty swallowing due to enlarged tonsils can also affect your ability to eat and drink comfortably.
3. Tonsil stones
Tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths, are small, hard deposits that can form in the crypts (folds) of the tonsils. They are formed by debris such as food, dead cells and other substances.
They might not always cause problems, but if they lead to persistent bad breath or discomfort, your provider might recommend a tonsillectomy.
4. Cancer of the tonsils
Whether you have tonsils or not, you could develop tonsil cancer. About 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (tonsils, soft palate and base of tongue) are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus.
A biopsy helps to rule out the possibility of throat or other cancers. To complete the biopsy, a tonsillectomy may be performed first.
When to see your health care provider or an ENT specialist
If you experience any of the following signs, you should see your health care provider or an ENT specialist:
- Frequent or persistent sore throats
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Persistent bad breath
- Swollen tonsils or throat pain
What to expect with a tonsillectomy
Your provider may try some non-surgical treatments first, but a tonsillectomy may be the best course of action.
If this type of surgery is recommended, it will be performed by an ENT specialist, usually as an outpatient procedure.
While it’s natural to feel a bit nervous, it is a fairly simple procedure and one of the most common types of surgery. Here’s what you can expect before, during and after the procedure.
Before the procedure: Your ENT specialist will give you instructions to follow before the surgery, such as fasting (not eating or drinking for a specific time). They will also discuss any medications you need to stop taking before surgery.
During the procedure: The surgery is performed under general anesthesia, which means you’ll be asleep during the procedure. The ENT specialist will carefully remove the tonsils through the mouth without any external incisions (cuts), so you will not have any visible scars.
After the procedure: After the surgery, you’ll need to rest and recover. Plan for 10 days to two weeks or more of recovery time.
You may experience a sore throat and mild pain, which can be managed with prescribed pain medications and cold compresses.
“The procedure is no different for adults and children, it’s just that adults take longer to heal,” Dr. Stewart said. “As long as you keep on schedule with your pain meds, rest and stay hydrated, the pain is manageable.”
When to see your provider or get emergency care
Call your doctor if you experience the following:
- A fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher
- Signs of dehydration (increased pain, lightheadedness and no urination)
- Severe or persistent ear pain
- Inability to swallow (even liquids)
- Uncontrolled nausea
Life-threatening complications from tonsillectomies are rare, but call 911 if you have trouble breathing.
A tonsillectomy is a common procedure, and the recovery process is manageable with the right care. Your provider will guide you through the entire process, ensuring a safe and comfortable experience.
If you think you may have tonsil problems and want to see if a tonsillectomy could help, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or find a Banner Health ENT specialist near you.