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Updated on January 20, 2023
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Tonsil Stones: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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What are Tonsil Stones?

Tonsil stones, also called tonsilloliths, are small white or yellow lumps on the tonsils. They can be uncomfortable but generally aren’t a cause for concern.

The tonsils are the small pink glands at the back of your throat, one on each side. They’re part of your immune system, helping to fight infections by producing antibodies.

There are small folds or crevices on the surface of your tonsils, called crypts. Bacteria and small food particles can build up and calcify in these crypts over time, creating tonsil stones.

You may begin to notice tonsil stones because they cause bad breath or provoke a cough. While tonsil stones aren’t desirable, they don’t tend to cause any serious problems. They can usually be managed at home.

6 Treatments for Tonsil Stones

Tonsil stones are usually small and often go unnoticed. They may not need any treatment at all. However, they may cause an uncomfortable sensation in your throat or contribute to coughing or bad breath.

You can try to remove tonsil stones yourself or see your dentist or doctor if you have difficulty doing so. Here are some potential ways to remove tonsil stones:

1. Gargling

Gargling with warm salt water can help soothe your throat and dislodge tonsil stones. You may need to gargle more than once throughout the day to dislodge the stones fully.

To help break the stones down, you can also try gargling with watered-down apple cider vinegar (about a tablespoon per cup of warm water).

You can also try gargling with mouthwash but stick to a non-alcoholic kind. Alcohol can dehydrate your throat, making irritation worse.

2. Using a Water Flosser

A water flosser can help you dislodge a tonsil stone. Stand in front of a mirror and locate the stone, then aim the stream of water at it. This is likely to loosen the stone.

Be mindful that a falling tonsil stone may cause you to cough or even pose a choking hazard.

3. Using an Object

An object such as a cotton swab or dental pick can also allow you to remove a tonsil stone. Like the water flosser method, it’s best to do this in front of a mirror, so you know exactly where you’re aiming.

Be gentle and avoid using anything sharp that could accidentally damage your tonsils or throat. You don’t need to hurt yourself to remove a tonsil stone.

4. Coughing

A gentle cough or two may be enough to knock a tonsil stone out. This may be especially effective if you’ve already loosened it somewhat with one of the other methods.

Be sure not to cough aggressively, which can worsen throat irritation. Again, there’s no reason to hurt yourself to get rid of a tonsil stone.

5. Professional Removal by a Dentist

If you’re having trouble removing tonsil stones on your own, make an appointment with your dentist. They may use an object or irrigator as you would at home, but they’ll have a better ability to see and access your tonsils.

6. Professional Removal by an ENT

Large stones that cause pain or other problems may need to be removed by a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat issues (ENT). ENT doctors can remove the stones using a medical laser.

If your tonsil stones are due to recurring tonsillitis, your tonsils themselves can also be removed (tonsillectomy). This is also performed by an ENT. However, most adults shouldn’t expect to need a tonsillectomy.

Complications of Tonsil Stones

Tonsil stones aren’t a major medical concern in themselves. They’re unlikely to have any complications, aside from persistent discomfort. They may cause you to feel as though you have a foreign object in your throat.

However, tonsil stones can sometimes be caused by (or contribute to) tonsillitis. Untreated bacterial tonsillitis (strep throat) can have complications. The infection could spread to your inner ear, cause an abscess, or affect other organs in your body.

Other symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • A whitish discharge on your tonsils
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Malaise or fatigue
  • Earache
  • Cough
  • Painful swallowing

If your tonsil stones are accompanied by any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor.

What Causes Tonsil Stones?

There are small pockets or folds on the surface of your tonsils. Known as tonsillar crypts, these folds can sometimes trap small amounts of food debris, saliva, and bacteria.

Over time, this material builds up and calcifies, forming pebble-like tonsil stones. This may occur on its own, but it can also be due to a bacterial infection of the tonsils (tonsillitis).

Inflammation can enlarge the tonsillar crypts, making it easier for them to accumulate debris and bacteria. Discharge (exudate) from inflamed tonsils can also collect in the tonsillar crypts.

Tonsil Stones Appearance and Symptoms

Tonsil stones look like small white or yellow clumps or pebbles. They’re usually small but can vary in size. In extreme cases, they may be similar in size to the tonsils.

Aside from their appearance, they may come with other symptoms, such as:

  • Bad breath
  • The sensation of a foreign object in the throat
  • A bad taste in the mouth
  • Sore throat

In many cases, however, tonsil stones don’t cause any discomfort. They may go unnoticed until someone looks at their tonsils in a mirror.

How to Prevent Tonsil Stones

The following habits can help you prevent tonsil stones from developing:

  • Regular brushing and flossing
  • Gargling with warm salt water, watered-down apple cider vinegar, or mouthwash after eating
  • Seeing a dentist twice a year for dental exams and teeth cleanings

These habits will help prevent food particles and bacteria from accumulating in hard-to-reach places like tonsil crypts. However, they don’t guarantee you’ll never develop a tonsil stone.

The only way to completely prevent tonsil stones from forming is by surgically removing the tonsils (tonsillectomy). This procedure isn’t usually necessary, but it may be recommended if you have severe recurring tonsil infections.

Summary

Tonsil stones are small calcified deposits that can form in the folds of your tonsils. They’re largely made of food debris and bacteria. The deposits form gradually and may go unnoticed for a long time.

These deposits may cause discomfort and bad breath, but they aren’t usually a cause for serious concern. They can be easily removed at home or by a dentist or doctor.

However, see your doctor if your tonsil stones are accompanied by a persistent sore throat, swollen tonsils, or a fever.

Last updated on January 20, 2023
7 Sources Cited
Last updated on January 20, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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  3. Abu Bakar, Muhamad, et al. “Chronic tonsillitis and biofilms: a brief overview of treatment modalities.” Journal of Inflammation Research, 2018.
  4. Krespi, Yosef P., and Victor Kizhner. “Laser tonsil cryptolysis: in-office 500 cases review.” American Journal of Otolaryngology, 2013.
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  6. Ferguson, Matthew, et al. “Halitosis and the Tonsils: A Review of Management.” Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 2014.
  7. Sulibhavi, Anita, and Glenn Isaacson. “TikTok Tonsils.” Ear, Nose, and Throat Journal, 2021.
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