A person sitting in front of a doctor holding their throat.

Chronic Sore Throat? Bad Breath? It Might Be Tonsil Stones

How Do You Get Tonsil Stones?

Tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths, are calcified debris that form when food, dead cells, mucus, and bacteria become trapped in tiny craters at the surface of the tonsils. Your tonsils are located at the back of your throat and play an important role in protecting your body against infection. The accumulated debris hardens as it calcifies, creating hard lumps that are usually white or pale yellow. Stones start relatively small (about the size of a piece of gravel) but can become larger over time. In rare cases, tonsil stones may grow up to the size of a golf ball. While they can be frustrating and lead to some discomfort, they are mostly harmless. But, how do you get tonsil stones? Let’s find out.

What Causes Tonsil Stones?

As mentioned above, these stones occur when food particles and other debris get caught in small crypts on the surface of your tonsils. Over time these deposits calcify and harden, creating lumps that may lead to painful or frustrating symptoms.

While most of us have tonsils, not all of us develop tonsil stones. So, who is most at risk of developing them? If you have large tonsils, deeper crevices at the surface of your tonsils, or a history of tonsil inflammation, you may be more likely to develop them. Tonsil stones occur more commonly in people between the ages of 20 and 60.

You may also be more likely to develop stones in your tonsils if you suffer from post-nasal drip or allergies, as these conditions cause excess mucus to accumulate in the back of the throat. You should seek treatment to eliminate the excess mucus.

While many people assume that poor oral hygiene contributes to stones, but this is not necessarily the case. However, maintaining good oral hygiene is important. It can help by reducing the number of bacteria and food debris present in the mouth. Be sure to brush your teeth and tongue carefully, floss between your teeth, and follow up with an alcohol-free mouthwash.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Now that you know a bit more about how they form, you may be wondering what the symptoms are. These can vary depending upon the size of the stone, and some people may experience no symptoms at all. The most common symptoms are:

  • Chronic sore throat
  • Bad breath (often this is the only symptom experienced)
  • Ear pain
  • Difficulty or painful swallowing
  • A feeling of something stuck in the back of the throat
  • Cough
  • Upper airway obstruction
  • Hoarseness
  • Bad taste in the mouth

You may suspect that you have tonsil stones if you notice small yellow/white flecks on your tonsils as you brush your teeth. However, tonsil stones are not always visible to the naked eye and can therefore be difficult to catch early on. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment with your doctor to get it checked out.

How Are Tonsil Stones Treated?

Often, tonsil stones require no treatment at all and can even dislodge by themselves. If your tonsil stones are causing persistent issues, there are a couple of home remedies that you can try. However, these are typically only effective on small stones. Home remedies include:

  • Gargling — gargling with a mild, warm saltwater solution or a non-alcoholic mouthwash can help to dislodge the bothersome stones.
  • Use a low-pressure water irrigator — some people have success when they irrigate the tonsils using a water flosser. Regular irrigation can also help to prevent the formation of tonsil stones.

While it may be tempting to try and dislodge the stones manually at home, this is not advised, as tonsils are delicate structures, and you may cause injury.

When to See a Doctor

You should make an appointment to see your doctor if you are experiencing significant discomfort or pain from your tonsil stones. By discussing your symptoms carefully with your doctor, you will be able to devise a suitable treatment plan together.

For severe, problematic, or recurring stones, you and your doctor may decide that surgical removal is the best option. If your tonsil stones are having a significantly negative effect on your quality of life, and you have had little success with other treatments, your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy or complete removal of your tonsils.

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