Have you ever seen white-ish or yellow-ish lumps that look like they are embedded in the back of your throat? These are likely tonsil stones (also called tonsilloliths), which are hardened deposits of debris and bacteria buildup in the craggy crevices of the tonsils. Tonsil stones are fairly common, and often treatable at home.
Causes of Tonsil Stones
Tonsil stones form when bacteria and material like dead cells, food debris, mucus and saliva get trapped in the tonsil crypts -- the craggy crevices and pits of the tonsils. Over time, this buildup calcifies into hard lumps, and is usually quite foul smelling. Some issues believed to increase the likelihood of developing tonsil stones are:
Poor oral hygiene
Chronic sinus issues
Recurrent tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils)
Symptoms of Tonsil Stones
How do you know if you have tonsil stones? They can range in size from very small (about the size of a grain of rice) to very large (about the size of a grape!), and are often visible with the aid of a well lit mirror. Besides being able to spot them visually, these are the common symptoms of tonsil stones:
Bad breath, caused by the buildup of bacteria
Sensation of something stuck in the throat
Difficulty or pain when swallowing
Tonsil stones are mostly harmless, even if they cause discomfort. They may dislodge or dissolve on their own, but they can also grow quite large or keep coming back. If you have large and/or recurrent tonsil stones, you should visit a doctor for removal and to find the underlying cause.
Getting Rid of Tonsil Stones
Tonsil stones are often coughed up inadvertently, and sometimes dislodge or dissolve on their own. There are some home remedies for removing tonsil stones, but always ask your doctor or dentist if these methods are safe for you before attempting them.
A Low Pressure Irrigator such as a water flosser can help loosen and dislodge tonsil stones. To do this, stand in front of a well lit mirror and aim the water flosser toward the tonsil stones. Be careful -- freeing a tonsil stone can cause it to fall to the back of the throat and cause coughing. Due to the risk of choking, never use this method on children.
Cotton Swabs may be used to loosen and dislodge tonsil stones. Gargle vigorously with warm salt water to loosen the stone, then dampen a clean cotton swab and gently press on the tissue surrounding the stone. Position the swab behind the stone and gently press towards the front of the mouth. Be careful not to push too hard, and stop immediately if any bleeding occurs. Due to the risk of choking, never use this method on children. Never use hard or pointed objects (like toothpicks or toothbrushes) to attempt to dislodge stones, due to risk of injury and infection.
How to Prevent Tonsil Stones
Because tonsil stones develop from food and other materials getting trapped in the tonsils, the best way to prevent tonsil stones from forming is to keep your mouth clean!
Brush and Floss after every meal to help keep your mouth clean of food debris and bacteria, and help prevent tonsil stones from forming.
Gargle with Antiseptic Mouthwash or Warm Salt Water. It will help loosen existing tonsil stones, and help prevent the development of new stones by reducing the amount of bacteria and other stone-building material in the mouth. Gargle after every meal or multiple times a day.
Stay Hydrated and Drink Water after eating to increase saliva flow and rinse away food debris, bacteria and other materials that can get trapped in tonsil crypts.
Tonsillectomy (surgical removal of tonsils) may be recommended if you have chronically recurring tonsil stones.
Tonsil cryptolysis may be recommended for individuals with large or craggy tonsils and recurrent tonsil stones. It involves the use of a laser or radiofrequency wand to reshape and reduce the tonsil crypts to help prevent tonsil stones from forming.