What are tonsil stones and what can you do to prevent them?

Tonsil stones, or tonsilloliths, are a buildup of bacteria and debris within the nooks and crannies of your tonsils. This debris hardens into small “stone-like” growths.

The condition known as tonsillitis, meanwhile, occurs when the tonsils themselves become infected.

What Are Tonsil Stones?

Tonsil stones are hard white or yellow formations located within the tonsils. Tonsil stones can cause bad breath, a sore throat, and even trouble swallowing.

The tonsils are gland-like tissue in the back of each side of your mouth. They contain the lymph nodes that work as a part of your immune system, filtering out viruses and other harmful particles from entering your body and making you sick.

Typically, you swallow small particles of debris, like food, dead cells, and mucus. When this debris gets caught in the small pockets of your tonsils, tonsil stones can form. This happens more often in people who:

  • Regularly have inflammation of their tonsils
  • Have large tonsils
  • Have repeated tonsillitis

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Symptoms of Tonsil Stones

The symptoms of tonsil stones are often difficult to notice: Most of the time, these growths are small and cause no real symptoms at all. If you do discover a tonsil stone, it’s typically by accident.

Larger stones, however, can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • White spots on the tonsils
  • Bad breath
  • Sore throat, or a feeling of stones in your throat
  • Red or swollen tonsils
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Ear pain, depending on whether the stone is pressing a nerve

Sometimes it’s tough to tell whether your symptoms are caused by a tonsil stone or by an infection: Tonsillitis can also cause pain when swallowing, swollen tonsils, and sore throat, for example.

How to Remove Tonsil Stones

Tonsilloliths are generally harmless — they’re just uncomfortable, and embarrassing when they cause bad breath.

To treat tonsil stones at home, just scrape the buildup off with a toothbrush and gargle some warm saltwater.

In more severe cases, a doctor may need to surgically remove the tonsil stone. This is a simple procedure done by numbing just the area around the tonsils. If tonsil stone is a chronic problem and you have repeated tonsillitis, your doctor may recommend that you have your tonsils removed, in a procedure known as a tonsillectomy.

Tonsil Stone Prevention

Practice good oral hygiene to prevent the formation of tonsil stones, including flossing and brushing teeth and tongue after every meal. Try gargling thoroughly with an oral rinse at least once a day.

When Is a Tonsillectomy Needed?

Only a doctor can determine if you need a tonsillectomy or additional treatment for chronic tonsil stones.

Talk to your health care provider if you experience severe or prolonged symptoms. Visit the UPMC Ear, Nose, and Throat website to learn more about throat-related ailments.

Talk to your doctor if you’re having more severe symptoms to make sure you don’t have an infection and to find ways to limit the discomfort caused by tonsil stones.