What Causes Tonsil Stones: Symptoms & Removal
If you’re one of the small percentages of people to get tonsil stones (“tonsilloliths”) you know what a bother they can be. Usually, tonsil stones cause serious bad breath, or halitosis. Understanding what causes tonsil stones can help you find ways to reduce their severity, cut back on how many you get, or prevent them altogether.
What Are Tonsil Stones?
Photos Of Tonsil Stones:
What Causes Tonsil Stones
People who have recurring tonsillitis tend to develop what we call “tonsillar crypts” across their surface. These crypts look like crevices or craters in your tonsils, creating a range of openings or sunken-in areas that can collect bacteria and food debris. They’re caused by gradual accumulation of bacterial byproducts, food, and the natural microorganisms that are found inside of your mouth.
Tonsil stones are more common in people who have several crevices or crypts across their tonsil surfaces typically due to a history of infections and illness. They tend to occur more frequently in teenagers. But if you’re a person who has had tonsilloliths in the past, you’ll be at a greater risk of getting them in the future.
Since your tonsils aren’t exactly a part of your mouth that you clean with a toothbrush, it’s important to reduce the number of oral bacteria inside of your mouth with rigorous brushing, flossing, and – my favorite – using a tongue scraper every day!
1) Poor Dental Hygiene
If you’re not great about brushing and flossing every day, you’re going to naturally have a higher number of bacteria inside of your mouth. Left alone, those bacteria then produce additional byproducts (aka cellular waste) that accumulate. The excess can spread to other parts of your mouth, throat, airway, and circulatory system. Naturally, your tonsils are one of the first places for that residue to accumulate. The less frequently (and thoroughly) you’re cleaning your teeth, gums, and tongue, the higher the risk you have of getting tonsil stones.
2) Large Tonsils
3) Chronic Sinus Issues
Mucous drainage down the back of your throat can irritate your tonsils and lead to bacterial accumulation around the tissues in the back of your mouth. If you’re someone who constantly battles bad breath because of seasonal allergies or chronic sinus infections, you might want to have your throat checked for tonsil stones! Although tonsils aren’t inherently part of your nasal sinuses, they can become irritated and develop tonsil stones if you have a constant “post-nasal drip” (drainage down the back of your throat.)
4) Chronic Tonsillitis
Having constantly inflamed tonsils or recurring tonsillitis causes your tonsils (which are lymph nodes) to become swollen, stretching its surface and providing a larger area for bacteria to hide. On top of that, there’s an increased number of germs from the infection at hand. The more infections you experience, the greater the risk of scarring there is, which by nature raises your chances of getting tonsil stones wedged down around all of that scar tissue.
Symptoms Of Tonsil Stones
Chronic discomfort is a normal symptom in people who have tonsil stones. It might feel like an itchy sensation in the back of your throat or as if tonsillitis is starting to set in. Sore throat symptoms could possibly be confused with strep throat, allergies, or a sinus infection.
Depending on how large the tonsil stone is, it could interfere with swallowing. You might find that it either hurts to swallow or it’s more difficult to swallow than it used to be. Of course, difficulty swallowing could be a risk factor for numerous different health problems, so it’s a symptom you really can’t afford to ignore.
Surprise: your tonsils are close to your ears! So if they’re swollen or have hard calcified growths in them, the pressure can push against the shared nerve pathways, creating what’s called “referred pain”, or where it makes your ear hurt even though there’s nothing in your ear.
Coughing is a natural reaction to having a foreign body in your mouth, throat, or respiratory system. If you have tonsil stones that are sort of “tickling” the back of your throat or roof of your mouth, it’s a normal response to feel the need to cough it out.
When there are tonsil stones in your tonsillar crypts, the bacteria basically trigger a constant cycle of irritation and inflammation. As a result, your tonsils swell or stay swollen, even if you’re treating other possible risk factors. Remember, your tonsils are lymph nodes, so it’s common for them to swell or make it difficult to swallow if your immune system is fighting off an infection.
White Or Yellow Debris On The Tonsil
Not all tonsil stones are visible. But when they are, you’ll usually notice a clump of white or yellow on your tonsil. Sometimes they take on a more greyish color. It will generally look like a circular area or spot on your tonsil, but like an iceberg, the biggest part is typically hidden from plain view.
Most people who have tonsil stones will at least some point try to remove them on their own. I just want to insert a HUGE disclaimer right here that if you choose to do so, you have the possibility of seriously injuring yourself or even setting yourself up for an infection afterward. For example – some people use cotton swabs to push on their tonsils and force them out – which can potentially be a recipe for disaster. That being said…here are some of the most common DIY ways to remove tonsil stones at home.
1) Low-Pressure Irrigator
If your dentist has them on hand, ask for a low-pressure irrigator. Basically, it’s like a huge plastic syringe with a curved, tapered tip (there isn’t a needle) that people can put mouthwash or water in to flush out infected areas in their mouth. In this case, you can aim the tip so that it sprays a steady stream of water around the sides of your tonsil stones to potentially loosen and flush them out.
Although a water flosser is a bit too heavy-duty to use, the ones with adjustable water pressure settings could also come in handy. Just start with the pressure on low and work your way up from there.
This method can get pretty messy, so you’ll need to make sure you have a handheld mirror while you’re leaning over the sink.
2) Gargling Non-Alcoholic Mouth Rinses
Vigorous rinsing with a mouthwash can lower bacteria levels and potentially loosen your tonsil stone. Plus, the antimicrobial action could help prevent new stone growth.
3) Gargling Saltwater
Saltwater rinses help soothe sore throats and reduce inflammation. If your tonsil stones are causing irritation, the saltwater may provide some sense of relief. For best results, dissolve one teaspoon of salt into an 8 oz. glass of water.
4) Apple Cider Vinegar Gargle
Coughing is a natural way to get rid of foreign debris like tonsil stones. So, if you feel like you can cough the stone loose, then have at it! Just be warned, coughing too hard could make you vomit or even burst blood vessels. But gentle coughing is still forceful enough to knock out tonsil stones that are already starting to work their way out. The same goes for swallowing firmer, crunchy foods that rub up against your tonsils when you’re swallowing them (like carrots or apples.)
An antibiotic won’t physically remove your tonsil stone, but it can treat the source of where that bacteria is coming from. If you recently had your tonsil stones removed but have some type of recurring infection, your doctor might want to write you a prescription.
It’s possible to have your tonsil stones professionally removed. But whether it’s done in-office or by surgery, you run the risk of possible re-infection as you heal or new scar tissue is created.
Laser Tonsil Cryptolysis
Minor Surgical Procedures
If you don’t quite want to have your tonsils removed, but you know you need to have your tonsil stones cleaned out, your doctor or ENT can arrange to physically remove them during a minor surgical appointment. In most cases, a special tool is used to clean or suction the stone out of your tonsil crypts. You’re typically awake for this type of procedure, but it can be performed under general anesthesia if your tonsil stone is severe.
For large tonsil stones, the recommended treatment is usually a tonsillectomy. Of course, this is the most aggressive approach and requires outpatient surgery (usually under general anesthesia.) Healing times can take around a week or two. With a tonsillectomy, you completely eliminate the habitat where tonsil stones form, because your tonsils are taken out altogether. There is little to no chance of your tonsilloliths coming back.
Preventing Tonsil Stones
1) Practicing Good Oral Hygiene
The less bacteria you have inside of your mouth, the lower the chances are that it’s going to get lodged in and around your tonsils. Although tonsil stones can’t be completely blamed on poor oral hygiene, having a good brushing and flossing routine could significantly lower your chances of getting tonsilloliths.
2) Use Tongue Scraper
It’s said that our tongues house about 90% of the bacteria responsible for causing bad breath because of how well those germs can hide on the bumpy surface. Using a tongue scraper is one of the best ways to remove the most bacterial residue (compared to using a toothbrush on your tongue.)
3) Stopping Smoking
Tobacco use – be it cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, or cigar smoking – can alter the tissues inside of your mouth and raise your risk of both stain and tartar buildup. So, it’s no surprise that it’s a risk factor for tonsil stones too!
4) Gargling With Nonalcoholic Mouthwash
Alcohol-free mouthwash is gentler on your tissues and better for treating (and preventing) bad breath. The antimicrobial ingredients can help you prevent new tonsil stone growth.
5) Gargling With Saltwater
Saltwater is a natural anti-inflammatory. It’s safe to rinse with it a few times a day when you have a scratchy or irritated throat or need to lift away food residue after meals.
Risks To Consider If Left Untreated
Most people don’t worry about treating their tonsil stones until they become problematic. As such, you can always go without treating them if they’re not really bothering you. But chances are, even if you don’t notice the odor, other people will. Bad breath isn’t something you can just rinse away or cover up with a mint.
Plus, with tonsil stones constantly irritating your throat, it will make it difficult to swallow or increasing your risk of recurring tonsillitis. You run the risk of other symptoms being masked by the tonsil stones, possibly setting you up for a concurrent infection that you don’t even know about.
How Long Do They Last
Just like tartar on your teeth, tonsil stones are hard, calcified bacteria. They tend to stay where they are until they’re physically cleaned out or removed by a professional. Sometimes they’ll come loose on their own, but most of the time they have to be forced out. You very well could have a tonsil stone that’s there for years.
Are Tonsil Stones Contagious
No. The bacteria inside of tonsil stones are the same type of germs and particles that are floating around inside of our mouths at other times. The only difference is that they’re calcified in one specific area. You can’t get them by drinking after, sharing food with, or kissing someone that has tonsil stones. But keep in mind, you might see tonsil stones run in families, since parents pass their genetic traits on to their children.
When To See A Doctor
If you have noticeable tonsil stones that are causing a chronic sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or bad breath, then it’s time to see a doctor. Even if you’re not worried about the tonsil stone, you need to rule out other potential infections since your lymph nodes are involved. Chronic swollen tonsils could be linked with other types of infections as well.
By the time a tonsil stone is visible, it’s best to have it evaluated. Although tonsilloliths are typically bothersome anomalies, you still need to make sure that’s what is actually on your tonsils.
Problems like chronic halitosis are a serious concern when tonsil stones are present. No matter how well you’re brushing, flossing, rinsing, or cleaning your tongue, there may still be some odor behind. And since the smell can affect everything from your professional to your private life, a doctor is the only person who can help.
Tonsil Stones Recap
Tonsil stones are hard, mineralized deposits that form in the pits and craters (crypts) on the surface of your tonsils. They’re also called tonsilloliths. They can cause symptoms like bad breath and a sore throat. Some people are able to remove them on their own or with DIY home remedies, while others rely on the professional recommendations or surgery from their doctor. Bottom line don’t ignore them. You don’t want the symptoms to mask a more serious infection and run the risk of an undiagnosed health problems.
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