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Sore Throat

What Are Tonsil Stones?

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Your tonsils are the small oval-shaped bits of tissue in the back of your throat, and they help stop germs from entering the body through the nose or mouth. Tonsils have crevices and tunnels called tonsil crypts, and sometimes debris, such as saliva, mucus and even food, can get caught in these crypts and calcify, forming stones. While tonsil stones are common and rarely cause serious issues, they can be frustrating to deal with.

What causes tonsil stones?

Some causes of tonsil stones include:

  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Frequent tonsil infections, like tonsillitis
  • Enlarged tonsils
  • Chronic sinus infections

What do tonsil stones look like?

Tonsil stones are hard white or yellow formations that look like pebbles. They can range in size from a grain of rice to a large grape. Patients can also develop just one tonsil stone or several.

What are the symptoms of tonsil stones?

Tonsil stones may cause ear pain, but otherwise are not typically painful. They can, however, cause some other unwanted symptoms, such as:

  • Bad breath
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Bad taste in your mouth

How are tonsil stones diagnosed?

If the tonsil stones are large enough, you may see them when looking inside your mouth. Or if you go see a provider, such as your ENT, primary care physician or even your dentist, they may notice the tonsil stones while examining your mouth. If your provider believes you have tonsil stones but they are not easily seen, your doctor may also take an image scan of your mouth and throat.

How are tonsil stones removed?

In some cases, you can remove tonsil stones at home. In more severe cases, you may need the help of your provider to get them out. If you have tonsil stones, you can try:

  • Gargling with salt water – Dissolve ½ teaspoon in 8 ounces of water and then gargle. This can help dislodge any formed tonsil stones. Gargling salt water can also help get rid of any odor that occurs because of the tonsil stones and ease any discomfort, like a sore throat, that the tonsil stones may cause.
  • Coughing – If you notice you have tonsil stones, strong coughing can help loosen them.
  • Manual removal – You do not want to cause any damage to your tonsils, which can lead to bleeding or infection. You never want to use an object like your finger or a toothbrush to remove the tonsils stones. If you have a water pick or a cotton swab at home, you can try dislodging the stones from your tonsils. However, it is essential that you be gentle.

If these tactics do not work, you will want to see your medical provider. If they are unable to remove them in the office, there are a few surgical techniques they can use to help get tonsil stones out. If a tonsil stone causes a serious infection it may require a surgery called tonsillectomy, which involves removing the tonsils. Tonsillectomies are typically reserved for severe or chronic cases after other methods have been tried without success.

How can I prevent tonsil stones?

Some patients experience tonsil stones on a regular basis. To help prevent them from developing, practice these steps:

  • Thoroughly brush and floss your teeth to remove any remaining debris in your mouth. Be sure to brush your tongue as well.
  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can cause oral cavities that can trigger tonsil stones
  • Gargle with salt water after your meals. This can help dislodge any tonsil stones

Are there any complications from tonsil stones?

While tonsil stones rarely cause complications, if left untreated, they can cause an infection which can lead to an abscess to form in your tonsils. This typically happens if the tonsil stone gets very large in size. Large tonsil stones can disrupt your tonsil tissue and cause swelling and damage to your tonsils. If this happens, you will want to see a medical provider to discuss best next steps. 

Schedule an appointment with Dr. Amy Rabalais.