Treating Tonsil Stones: Taming Tonsilloliths
Your tonsils are tiny filters in the back of your mouth, helping to catch bacteria and viruses that invade your mouth in an attempt to keep colds, flus and other bad bugs away. The only problem is that the tonsil’s filtration abilities are somewhat of an inexact science. While they catch bad things, they also sometimes pull in extra food particles that become stuck.
While your tonsils may appear like smooth pieces of tissue, they actually have small, cave-like “crypts” in them that make it easy for food, bacteria and dead cells from your mouth to stick together, creating what’s known as a tonsil stone. The food particle stuck in your mouth can turn from soft to hardened as saliva washes away the soft portions and enzymes and strong keratin from dead skin cells make the particles harder.
Tonsil stones don’t always cause symptoms and some are so small you can’t spot them with your eyes. Some signs you may have tonsil stones include:
- White, yellow or gray patches in the back of your throat that appear either uneven or pearl-like
- Itchy or sore throat
- Frequent tonsil infections, known as tonsillitis
- Chronic bad breath
At-Home Solutions for Treating Tonsil Stones
The good news is most tonsil stones don’t require a trip to the dentist or ENT, and you can solve your tonsil stone problems with some simple at-home treatments. One example is using a salt water gargle, which warms the back of the throat and helps to dislodge the tonsil stones. Mix one-fourth to one-half a teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water and drink – but don’t swallow – the water. Tilt your head back slightly and make an “Ahhhhh” noise, feeling the water bouncing in the back of your throat. After gargling for 15 to 30 seconds, you can spit out the water or swallow it. You also can gargle with a non-alcohol-based mouthwash. While this may not immediately dislodge the tonsil stone, it will likely loosen it until you gargle again.
Another water option is to use a Waterpik, which is a device designed to work similarly to dental floss. Aim the Waterpik at the back of your throat, feeling the water hitting your tonsil. Be aware if a tonsil stone decides to break free, it may slip down the back of your throat, causing you to gag.
If your tonsil stone isn’t bothering you in the extreme, you can always take the wait-and-see approach, leaving your tonsil alone until it dislodges itself. Another option is to manually remove the tonsil stone by opening your mouth in front of a lighted mirror and gently scraping at the stone until it pops out. Don’t scrape vigorously — the area around your tonsils is filled with tiny blood vessels that can easily bleed. Scraping your tonsils and breaking the skin can increase your infection risk too, which is why this approach isn’t often recommended. If you go through with it anyway, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before reaching in.
Invasive Techniques to Remove Tonsil Stones
Most tonsil stones are only a few millimeters in size, but some tonsil stones can be as large as an inch, according to The New York Times. When this happens and the stone just won’t seem to dislodge itself, calling your doctor may be in order. An ENT can manually remove the tonsil stone by applying a numbing agent to the back of the throat and using special instruments to remove the tonsil stone. Your physician also can prescribe antibiotics that kill bacteria living in or on the tonsil stone.
If you experience recurring tonsil stones, your physician may able to perform laser therapy, which smoothes some of the surface of your tonsils, reducing how cave-like they are, making it less likely your tonsils will collect future materials for stones to form.
Another option for chronic tonsil infections and inflamed tonsils is a tonsillectomy. This outpatient surgical procedure involves removing the tonsils and requires about 30 minutes to complete. However, you can experience side effects such as bleeding, infection and soreness for several days post-surgery.