Also known as tonsilloliths, tonsil stones refer to calcified matter that form in the tonsils which are located at the back of the throat. They are not dangerous but can adversely affect the standard and quality of life.
Humans have 2 tonsils which are placed in pocket-like structures, which in turn house the tonsil stones. Trapping of food matter, bacteria, dead cells, and mucous, etc., in the crevices of the tonsils ultimate harden and calcify to form white tonsil stones. Tonsil inflammation, sore throat, bad breath, and swallowing problems are the most common symptoms. People prone to frequent episodes of tonsil inflammation or prolonged tonsillitis are most susceptible to developing tonsil stones.
Symptoms of tonsil stones
In most cases, small tonsil stones do not produce any obvious symptoms. Sometimes, even large tonsil stones are asymptomatic and only get detected during routine CT scans or x-rays. However, in most cases, large tonsil stones can cause a variety of symptoms.
Some of the common signs and symptoms that accompany the formation of tonsil stones are listed below:
- Bad breath: Halitosis or extremely bad breath is one of the most common symptoms of tonsil infection caused due to tonsil stones. Some tests revealed the presence of volatile sulfur compounds in the breadth of people with chronic tonsillitis and tonsil stones. These compounds have a putrid odor, thereby causing bad breath in patients.
- White waste debris: In some cases, tonsil stones can be seen as a solid lump of white matter at the back of the throat, while in other cases in may be hidden within the tonsil folds. When tonsils stones are not visible across the throat, doctors may detect it via MRI, CT scans, or other non-invasive scanning techniques.
- Sore throat: The concurrent occurrence of tonsillitis and tonsil stones may pose difficulties in ascertaining whether the accompanying throat pain and discomfort is caused by the tonsilloliths or the infection. Also, even when a tonsil stone occurs on its own without infection, patients may experience discomfort, hurt, and pain in the region where the stone is trapped.
- Swallowing difficulties: Patients may experience discomfort, pain, and other problems when swallowing foods and fluids. The occurrence or not of this symptom is dependent on the size and location of the tonsil stone.
- Swelling of the tonsils: The tonsils may become larger or swollen, due to hardening of the accumulated debris in throat, or the formation of a tonsil stone, or infection and inflammation of the tonsils.
- Pain in ear: The tonsils share nerve pathways with other different organs of the body such as the ear. Thus, the occurrence of tonsil stone may result in ear pain, even if the tonsilloliths do not touch any parts of the ear.
Causes of tonsil stones
The tonsils are glandular structures occurring at the back of the throat. Each of the 2 tonsils is situated in a pouch present on either side of the throat. Tonsils comprise of tissue that are made of lymphocytes which are cells that help fight and prevent infections. Experts believe that tonsils are a part of the immune system and tend to function like webs that trap viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens travelling across the throat.
The tonsils are full of corners and crevices where varied matter such as dead cells, bacteria, food items, and mucous, etc. can get trapped. Such trapped debris can buildup and concentrate into white structures that stay in the tonsil pouches. Subsequently, these white materials slowly harden and calcify to become tonsil stones. People affected by prolonged tonsil inflammation or recurrent episodes of tonsillitis are most prone to developing the condition. Most patients tend to experience small-sized tonsil stones. However in rare instances, the tonsil stones may be large, solid, and severely discomforting.
How to get rid of tonsil stones?
Many cases of tonsil stones tend to disappear on their own. Hence, no medical treatment is needed, particularly in those cases which are asymptomatic.
In case the accompanying symptoms cause a lot of discomfort and pain and affect the daily routine, then doctors may recommend treatment as per the location and size of the tonsil stones. A few common treatment options include:
- Doctors may prescribe antibiotics to treat tonsilloliths infection. However, the use of antibiotics may cause side effects. Also, antibiotic therapy may not work in some patients and does not do anything to cure the root cause of tonsil stone development.
- Manual removal of visible tonsil stones via a swap or medical picks. It is advised not to dislodge the tonsil stones at home, but to instead seek medical attention.
- Pain and discomfort associated with tonsil stones, and tonsillitis if present, can be alleviated via warm salt water gargles.
- Very large tonsil stones accompanied by severe symptoms may be surgically removed. Sometimes, such surgery can be performed without general anesthesia, via the use of a local numbing agent.
Prevention of tonsil stones
- Tonsil stones usually occur in people with chronic cases of tonsillitis. Hence, the best way to prevent the formation of tonsil stones in such patients is a tonsillectomy or the surgical removal of the tonsils. The surgery involve complete removal of the tonsil tissue, which in turn eliminates any risk of tonsilloliths development.
- A tonsillectomy is carried out under general anesthesia. Post-surgery, patients may experience a sore throat and swallowing problems for a few days.
Minor cases of tonsil stones can be prevented by the below listed self-care measures:
- Maintaining good oral hygiene marked by daily brushing with an oxygenating toothpaste to remove any trapped debris, prevent oral bacterial overgrowth, and avoid bad breath; daily flossing to remove plaque which may not be removed via brushing; tongue scraping to eliminate sulfur-making anaerobic bacteria living underneath the surface of the tongue; and daily gargling with an oxygenating alcohol-free mouthwash to get rid of excess bacteria as well as prevent bad breath.
- Limit the intake of carbonated beverages, coffee, tea, and other drinks with high sugar content as they help the growth of oral bacteria that can get trapped in the tonsils and form tonsil stones.
- Excessive intake or alcoholic beverages as well as smoking can also affect the oral health. So limit the intake of alcohol and quit smoking.
- Do not eat any food at least an hour before going to sleep, or after nighttime brushing, as doing so can cause food particles to get lodged in the crevices of the tonsils, thereby causing tonsil stones over time.