Tonsil stones are small lumps of debris and bacteria in crevices or pockets within tonsils (in areas called crypts or craters).
Tonsil stones are also called Tonsilloliths or Calculi. This debris is at first squishy and cheese-like but gradually solidifies and hardened over time to become stone-like. They are often white or yellowish in color, can be as big as a pea or as small as a grain of rice and are generally harmless.
In this article, we will be discussing how to get rid of these stones but let’s first start with some basics.
How Do Tonsil Stones Form?
Typically, tonsil stones can form from the trapping of ingested food in crypts located in tonsils. It may also form from the collection of debris in the mouth which may contain actual food, dead cells, and mucus.
When this debris gets into small pockets within the tonsils, it is sometimes impossible to clear. This piles up as a soft squishy collection but soon becomes hardened over time. This may take some days and the saliva is also important in the stone forming process.
Who’s At Risk Of Tonsil Stones?
Tonsillar stones are more common in teenagers and adults than in children, and also commonest in women when compared to men. While some people only ever have tonsil stones once or twice ever, others have them frequently. If you frequently have throat or ear infections, you are at a higher risk of developing tonsilloliths.
Tonsillar stones are particularly commonest in people who have ever had tonsillitis – the inflammation of the tonsils themselves; people who regularly have tonsillitis, and people who have large tonsils. These groups are at a considerably higher risk of developing tonsillar stones compared to the rest of the population.
What Are The Symptoms?
Although tonsil stones are typically too small to be noticed by the naked eye and often do not cause any symptoms, they are pretty noticeable and able to cause symptoms in some people, which may be upsetting or worrying. These symptoms may include:
- Bad breath: These stones are able to cause mouth odor which may be putrid due to the sulfur released by bacteria content in these stones. It often causes some degree of embarrassment for people with tonsillar stones
- Ear pain or fullness, if a nerve is affected: In some cases, these stones are located close to a communication between the ear and the oral cavity. They can also be big enough to impinge on nerve endings and cause ear pain or fullness in the ears.
- Gum disease: Unchecked and continuous growth of these stones is capable of causing damage to the gums.
- A sore throat: This is due to the sheer size of the stones and causes discomfort in the throat when swallowing food or water.
- Red or swollen tonsils: Large stones are able to trap more debris, causing bacteria and other disease-causing entities to get trapped in and around the tonsils, some of which cause inflammation in the tonsils themselves.
- A cough: Large stones irritate the upper airway and can cause an unproductive cough
- Infections, in the mouth or the whole body: the presence of these stones may affect tonsillar function but is noted to be responsible for the accumulation of viruses and bacteria in the mouth. They are able to lie in and around these stones, causing infections in the mouth and the whole body.
- Feeling of something stuck in your throat: This is due to the presence of tonsillar stones. It is merely disconcerting, rather than being harmful.
- Foul or metallic taste in mouth: The taste often varies but is mostly as a result of the bacteria types in the stones as well as the debris.
- Whitish spots or specks on the tonsils: This can be seen in a mirror by oneself or under careful observation by others. These specks are often the stones themselves or a sign of an infection.
How Can I Get Rid Of Tonsil Stones?
Generally, a tonsil stone is often harmless and pretty straightforward to get rid of at home. At other times, they may need specialist intervention. There is no specific treatment for tonsil stones. However, below are some tips on how to get rid of tonsil stones.
1. Confirm that you have tonsil stones:
This is quite easy as all you need is a flashlight and a mirror. You may, however, have to search for images of tonsils to be sure on how they look. It is imperative to identify them first.
2. Use your tongue:
Push your tongue hard against your tonsils and try to pop or break the stones. In some cases, these stones are broken off and may fall out of your mouth. Coughing or clearing your throat can cause the same effect.
3. Using a toothbrush:
Position your mirror and source of light well before proceeding with this method. Scrape off the whitish or yellowish mass with a toothbrush and rinse your mouth after. This is a very effective method and will remove most stones.
4. Using a cotton swab:
Here, the same setup as above is required – the mirror and source of light. Pushing on the tonsil behind the stone or around it with a cotton swab to force the stone out is an effective method of tonsil stone removal. Beware of using sharp or pointy objects as this may cause injuries.
5. Gargle some warm salt water:
The vigorous effect of the saline gargling may dislodge and detach these stones and cause them to be removed. You may also use this method after any of the other methods as a sort of a rinse.
6. Consult your doctor:
Your doctor may be able to remove these stones with a few procedures or manipulations not requiring special instruments. Other times, a surgical approach is necessary to remove bigger or more intricate tonsillar stones.
Here, the area is first numbed with anesthesia and subsequently prepared for the extraction of the stones. You are then sent home with instructions. You should also consult your doctor if your tonsils are red, swollen or painful or if any of the above methods fail.
If you often have tonsil stones with accompanying sore throat, bad breath and difficulty swallowing, your doctor may offer you the option of taking your tonsils out totally. This is done surgically (called tonsillectomy) and will be carried out by an ENT specialist (otolaryngologist) which means you wouldn’t need to worry about tonsil stones ever again.
How Can I Prevent Tonsil Stones?
Practicing good oral hygiene is very important in preventing the occurrence of tonsil stones. This includes:
- Brushing twice daily, which includes your tongue and the corners of your mouth
- Rinsing your mouth after every meal and using mouthwash
- Flossing regularly
- Gargle with an oral rinse or salt water often
- Quitting smoking
- Getting a dental assessment
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