Tonsils are masses of lymphoid tissue which line the mouth and opening of the throat. They are designed to trap bacteria, viruses, and other harmful substances before they enter the respiratory system and the rest of the body. Because they act to reduce and fight infection, tonsils are considered to be part of the immune system.
Many people are familiar with the palatine tonsils, which dangle at the back of the throat behind the tongue. In addition, people also have pharyngeal tonsils, which are also known as adenoids; these line the roof of the mouth. Tonsils can also be found at the back of the tongue, in the form of lingual tonsils, and in the Eustachian tube, which links the pharynx to the ear. Collectively, they are known as Waldeyer's Tonsillar Ring.
Children tend to have the largest tonsils, because these tissues atrophy with age. As a result, when the those of children became infected, it is much more noticeable. Tonsil infections cause the tissue to swell, often causing pain or soreness, and once they have been infected once, the tonsils can easily become infected again. For this reason, children with severe tonsil infections, known as tonsillitis, or repeated infections may have them removed.
At one time, the removal of tonsils was more widely practiced, because their function was imperfectly understood. Now that doctors understand the role of tonsils in the immune system, they tend to be more hesitant to recommend removal, as it can compromise the immune system, leading to more severe infections later. If they survive through childhood, potential infections will be less noticeable, and the preservation of the tissue will help to fight disease in general.
Tonsils may be removed for reasons other than infection. Sometimes the tissue becomes so large and swollen that it inhibits breathing, causing sleep apnea or snoring. In these instances, removal of the palatine tonsils is recommended for health and comfort. They may also be removed in cases where people have trouble chewing. Many surgeons offer intracapsular tonsillectomy, which only involves the removal of part of the tissue, leaving some material behind to help protect the patient from future infections.