Tonsil Stones: Causes, Removal & Prevention

Dr. Sharon Robinson

Smelly yellow chunks stuck in my throat!

Tonsils, those gland-like structures stuck at the back of your throat, are filled with nooks and crannies that can trap bacteria and other materials, including dead cells and mucous. When this happens, the debris can concentrate into white formations in pockets, making those odd yellow clumps on your throat. These are called tonsil stones, or “Tonsilloliths,” when the trapped debris hardens or calcifies. Tonsil stones are among the major causes of bad breath, and happen most often in people who have chronic tonsil inflammation  or repeated tonsillitis.

Symptoms

Many small tonsil stones don’t cause noticeable symptoms. Even when they are large, some are only discovered on X-rays or CT scans. Larger stones, however, may have multiple symptoms:

  • Bad breath: One of the prime indicators of a tonsil stone is very bad breath, or halitosis, which accompanies a tonsil infection.
  • Sore throat: When a tonsil stone and tonsillitis occur together, it can be difficult to determine whether the pain in your throat is caused by infection or tonsil stone. The presence of a stone itself, though, may cause you pain or discomfort in the area where it is lodged.
  • White debris: Some tonsil stones are visible at the back of the throat as a lump of solid white material. This is not always the case. Often they are hidden in the tonsils’ folds. In these instances, they may only be detectable with the help of non-invasive scanning techniques, such as CT scans or magnetic resonance imaging.
  • Difficulty swallowing: Depending on the location or size of the stone, it may be difficult or painful to swallow foods or liquids.
  • Ear pain: Tonsil stones can develop anywhere in the tonsil. Because of shared nerve pathways, they may cause pain in the ear, even though the stone itself is not touching the ear.
  • Tonsil swelling: When collected debris hardens and a tonsil stone forms, inflammation from infection (if present) and the tonsil stone itself may cause a tonsil to swell.

 Treatment

Most tonsilloliths are harmless, but many want to remove them because they can smell foul or cause discomfort. Treatments range from home remedies to medical procedures.

  • Salt water gargles: Gargling with warm, salty water may help ease discomfort from tonsillitis. Dissolve a quarter to a half teaspoon of salt in eight ounces warm water and gargle.
  • Antibiotics: Various antibiotics can be used to treat tonsil stones. While they may be helpful for some people, they cannot correct the basic problem that is causing tonsilloliths.
  • Surgical removal:When tonsil stones are exceedingly large and symptomatic, it may be necessary to remove them surgically. In certain instances, a doctor will be able to perform this relatively simple procedure using a local numbing agent, with no general anesthesia needed.
  • Maintain Good Oral Hygiene. Failure to maintain proper oral hygiene is the main cause of tonsil stones. Bacteria in the mouth causes tonsil stones from accumulated food particles and other debris. The bacteria can be reduced by regularly brushing your teeth using recommended toothpastes, changing toothbrush regularly, gargling using mouth wash or salt water, and tongue scraping.

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