You may have heard of someone having their tonsils surgically removed. But what are the tonsils? Why do we have them, why do we need them and what happens when something goes wrong?
Your tonsils are nothing more than masses of lymph tissue, like lymph glands, that sit in the back of your throat, near the entrance to your nasal passages, where they can catch germs and bacteria that can cause infection. Tonsils are a welcome addition to our immune systems and help to filter out germs and bacteria before they have a chance to take hold in our bodies and cause further damage. They may also help our bodies create antibodies to germs. Interestingly, no scientific evidence exists to suggest that removal of the tonsils weakens an individual’s immune system.
There are some common problems that can affect your tonsils. General infection of the tonsils is called ‘tonsillitis’. Many of these infections occur in young children, with throat and ear infections the most common. The tonsils may be come enlarged, so that your doctor may decide removal of the tonsils is the best course of action to avoid chronic tonsillitis, future breathing problems or difficulties with swallowing.
Another common problem is abscess. Abscesses are pockets of pus that develop behind the tonsils. They make swallowing very painful and often the patient will talk as if they have a "hot potato" in their throat. Treatment involves removing the pus, either by sucking it out with a needle or putting the patient to sleep and opening the abscess with a scalpel.
Additional, cancerous tumors can grow on the tonsils and these need to be treated urgently. These usually occur in smokers but may also be associated with the papilloma virus.
Along with these issues, you may hear your doctor use the term “cryptic” tonsils. Your tonsils have small, pitlike depressions called ‘crypts” which fill with debris. Sometimes hard white “tonsil stones” develop in the crypts. These can contribute to bad breath which does not improve with brushing your teeth. Some patients can even pick these tonsil stones out with a fingernail or Q-tip. They usually smell bad. Because the affected area is hidden away from view, your doctor is best qualified to diagnose cryptic tonsillitis. The most effective treatment is to remove the tonsils.
After a thorough examination by your physician, it may be recommended that your tonsils be surgically removed. There are two main reasons your doctor may decide to do this. If you have had recurrent infections, even though you have been treated repeatedly with antibiotics, your doctor may feel removal is the best course of action. If your tonsils are chronically enlarged, this may be causing snoring at night and breathing problems too. In children, these problems can cause deformities in the face and jaw and improper alignment of your teeth.
Chronic infection of your tonsils can be a cause of painful ear infections, which could lead to hearing loss.
As in all health matters, it is important to seek out and follow your doctor’s advice.
Dr. Douglis is a Board Certified specialist in Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery (Ear, Nose, and Throat). He attended the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine and completed his specialty training at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He has practiced medicine in Montgomery County Texas and the Houston area since 1982.
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