Tonsil Stones: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

in Sore Throat

Unlike other types of stones that are found in the kidneys or bladder, tonsil stones are located in the mouth and are a growth in the tonsil area. They are becoming a more common trend in modern medical times as most people today have their tonsils, as opposed to a few years ago when tonsillectomies were common. Tonsil stones (also known as tonsilloliths) may be painful and may cause a foul odor, but don’t always need medical intervention for their removal. Read on to learn more about what tonsil stones are, what causes them, their symptoms, and when you should be concerned, and how to treat tonsil stones both at home or with your medical provider. 

What You Should Know About Tonsil Stones

The food you eat and other things you ingest (such as bacteria and dead cells) can become trapped in the throat on their way down and become stuck on the tonsils. This is how, initially, tonsil stones or tonsilloliths are formed. Tonsil stones usually take a bit of time to form and can be either very small, medium-sized, or very large. In fact, the largest tonsil stone on record is 14.5 cm, which is shy of six inches wide. However, most tonsil stones are small, and patients may not even realize at first that they have them. 

There are actually three types of tonsils in the mouth: 

  • Pharyngeal - The tonsil type found in the back of your throat
  • Palatine - Located on the sides of your throat
  • Lingual - Near the back (base) of your tongue

It’s important to know that when patients (and many physicians) say tonsils, they’re referring to the palatine tonsils. When tonsillectomies were common, these were the type that was most often removed. These are also the type of tonsils where tonsil stones are most common. 

Causes of tonsil stones are many, but often it does come down to poor oral hygiene as a primary cause. Food, bacteria, mucus, and dead skin can all become “trapped” on the way down; however, if a patient has good oral hygiene such as regular brushing and the use of mouthwash, it makes tonsil stones much more unlikely. Still, those who practice the best of hygiene are not immune to having tonsil stones form, even though good oral care is the best way to prevent tonsil stones. 

Some of the more common symptoms include swelling and feeling that there’s an obstruction at the top of your throat. However, these are also common symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux, so if you’re suffering from these symptoms for more than a few days, it may be time to consult your doctor. Other common symptoms of tonsil stones include difficulty breathing, especially when sleeping, and painful swallowing. However, some patients do not experience symptoms at all. In addition to symptoms, there are other slight signs that may indicate you have a case of tonsil stones.

Signs You May Have Tonsil Stones

Others may notice the signs of tonsil stones before you do. This is because the most common sign of tonsil stones is having bad breath or a foul odor that emanates from the back of the throat. Very often, others may notice these problems before we do as patients, so if a loved one does tell you that you’re suffering from bad breath, you may want to consider some of the other tonsil stone signs and let your doctor know. You may notice white or yellow flecks at the back of your throat, perhaps when gargling or brushing your teeth. If these seem to grow over time, this is a sure sign. A sore throat that is persistent (and not part of an unrelated cold or virus) is another top sign, along with swelling. Some patients experience ear pain. 

Sometimes Home Remedies Can Get Rid of Tonsil Stones

Unless you are positive you have tonsil stones (for example, if you’ve experienced them before and are experiencing symptoms again), it’s always important to obtain a doctor’s opinion. However, your doctor may even mention that some home remedies do wonders to get rid of tonsil stones. Tonsil stones may break apart on their own after a few bouts of strenuous gargling with saltwater. Doctors and patients have also recommended home remedies for tonsillolith such as:

  • Garlic. Simply ingesting garlic can help dissipate tonsil stones, as it is a natural antifungal and antibacterial.
  • Apple cider vinegar. While saltwater is your best bet for dislodging the stone, some patients have had similar luck with gargling apple cider vinegar.
  • Using a water flosser. This is also known as a water irrigator. However, because this offers more intimate contact with the stone and the tonsil, this is a method that your doctor should approve for you first. In other words, consult your doctor before you try this more invasive method.
  • Essential oils. Some patients have had luck with oils such as lemongrass. Using this method, you would put two droplets on a toothbrush and lightly brush the stones. Again, consult with your doctor before trying this (and throw this now-bacteria-ridden toothbrush out afterward).
  • Eating yogurt. Yogurt is a natural probiotic that can help dislodge a tonsil stone.
  • Carrots and onions. Similarly to garlic, these superfoods have antibacterial properties that can help keep your mouth clean and free of stones. 

Gargling with saltwater is the most recommended method, but some of the above home remedies can also aid in how to prevent tonsil stones (for example, ingesting probiotics, and eating carrots, garlic, or onions).

When Tonsil Stones Are Serious

Gargling with saltwater isn’t going to be the method that works for everyone. In some instances, tonsil stones may be serious, and may even require a more invasive method of treatment from your doctor, such as surgery. It can be tough to judge when a tonsil stone is severe and when it’s not, so when in doubt, make an appointment. Another good way to tell is if when gargling doesn’t work. Other things to keep in mind:

  • If you have symptoms of tonsil stones, but no visible stones, see your doctor immediately. This could be indicative of another problem, or a tonsil stone that requires intervention. 
  • If your tonsil stones are large, clearly visible and painful, see your physician.
  • Bloody saliva is another sign that there may be something more serious at work. 
  • Noticeable and acute pain, such as from the tonsil stone itself, neck pain, or visible swelling, are all good reasons to consult your doctor.

Your doctor may decide that more aggressive treatment is needed if your tonsils are infected, or if your tonsil stones are exceedingly large. Your doctor may use minor non-invasive surgery, such as laser removal or reshaping of the tonsils (tonsil cryptolysis) to remove your tonsil stones. The only way to prevent tonsil stones completely is to have a tonsillectomy. If the stones are a recurring problem for you or your stones are infected or painful, your doctor may recommend this. This is a very safe and simple procedure, and was a very common type of surgery several decades ago, particularly when tonsils were infected.  

If you need more information about tonsil stones or need to be seen by a doctor immediately, walk in to any of the nearby TrustCare locations. Our goal is to always help you Feel Better Faster.

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