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What You Should Know About Tonsil Stones: Causes, Symptoms, Removal, Treatment and Prevention

Halitosis or bad breath is one the most common complaints both adults and children tend to have about their oral health. However, could tonsil stones be the hidden culprit? Well, to answer that question, we’ll first need to understand what tonsil stones and their causes are.

Here is everything you need to know about tonsil stones, their causes, symptoms, treatment, removal and prevention.

What are Tonsil Stones?

Tonsil stones (or tonsilloliths) are what form when debris, such as dead cells, food particles, bacteria, and other substances, gets trapped on the tonsils. This debris then hardens as calcium builds up around it to form tonsil stones. 

In terms of appearance, tonsil stones usually manifest as little white or yellowish lumps or pebbles on your tonsils. It is also possible for you to have a single tonsil stone or multiple tonsil stones. Tonsil stones are typically small, but it is possible for people to get large ones.

Tonsil stones should not be mistaken with tonsillitis which is a tonsil infection, although both conditions can cause halitosis (bad breath) and throat pain. Tonsil stones are also pretty common, with a good number of people not even realising that they have them.

Causes of Tonsil Stones 

When debris and certain materials like food, bacteria, calcium and fungi become trapped in the tonsillar crypts (tiny crevices on the tonsils), they can harden to form tonsil stones. 

Because tonsils are made of lymphoid tissue, they have crypts (holes in their surface) which can be either very small or large. Tonsil stones are more likely to develop in people whose tonsils have larger or more crypts.

Symptoms of Tonsil Stones

Because most tonsil stones are small, it is not uncommon for a person to go on living their lives without experiencing any symptoms. However, some symptoms that may appear include; 

  • Bad breath or halitosis. Tonsil stones encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria that tend to produce foul-smelling sulfides.
  • Inflamed and swollen tonsils.
  • A sensation or feeling of something being caught in the back of the throat or mouth.
  • An irritating cough that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
  • Swallowing difficulties.
  • Ear ache and
  • Small yellow or white patches (or flecks) appear on your tonsils and at the back of your throat. A large stone may also be visible.

Diagnosis and Treatment

In order to diagnose tonsil stones, your dentist may carry out a physical exam of your throat and mouth, dislodge one of the stones with a dental pick or carry out a scan if the stones aren’t very visible.  

As for treatment, the aim is usually to manage the symptoms of the tonsil stones. Some of the at-home treatments you can carry out include;

Gargling With Salt Water- This helps your throat feel better. It may also dislodge the tonsil stones and get rid of the bad odour. Gargling should be done after eating so as to prevent food particles and debris from getting trapped in the tonsil crypts.

Brushing Your Teeth Regularly- One of the best ways to manage tonsil stones is a good dental hygiene routine. Brushing and flossing your teeth twice daily helps you get rid of any food particles, debris and bacteria that might otherwise get caught in tonsil crypts.

Coughing: Sometimes, a strong cough can help with the loosening of larger tonsil stones. Once loosened, the stones come up, and they can picked out.

Using an Object- If coughing and gargling don’t dislodge the tonsils stones, you can use an object like a cotton swab to dislodge them yourself. Make sure to never use your finger or a toothbrush, as they can easily scratch your tonsils and cause infection.

Surgery and Removal

If at-home tonsil stone treatments don’t work, your dentist might recommend a surgical procedure. The procedure, known as a tonsillectomy, involves surgically removing the tonsils to prevent the reoccurrence of tonsil stones. 

A tonsillectomy is quite a safe procedure; however, you may experience throat pain for several days following the procedure. It also carries some risks such as; infection, bleeding, breathing difficulties as a result of swelling, reactions to anaesthesia and dehydration that is secondary to pain.

Prevention

Some of the ways you can reduce the risk of tonsil stones include;

  • A good oral hygiene routine that involves regular brushing, flossing and the use of mouthwash.
  • Gargling with salt water after your meals.
  • Using a water flosser to remove debris, wash away bacteria, dislodge any tonsil stones and clean your mouth.
  • Staying hydrated.
  • Quitting cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Conclusion

Tonsil stones (or tonsilloliths) are small white or yellowish lumps of hardened debris that form on your tonsils. While they typically don’t cause any serious health issues, they do cause bad breath or halitosis. Tonsil stones can be managed with good oral hygiene and some other at-home methods, but in serious cases where the issue is recurring infections, a tonsillectomy might be needed.

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