What are Tonsils?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

A doctor checking the tonsils.
A doctor checking the tonsils.

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.

A diagram of the tonsils.
A diagram of the tonsils.

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.

Children with repeated tonsillitis may have them removed.
Children with repeated tonsillitis 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.

Gargling with warm salt water may help soothe the pain associate with sore tonsils.
Gargling with warm salt water may help soothe the pain associate with sore tonsils.

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.

The tonsils may be removed if they contribute to a patient's sleep apnea or loud snoring.
The tonsils may be removed if they contribute to a patient's sleep apnea or loud snoring.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Oceana: I have also questioned the smelly cream colored stones in my throat that I have coughed up all my life, but lately the smell of the stones started to get stronger and I started to smell it every day, all day.

While sitting in my morning class, I coughed up a stone, and being good friends with the girl next to me, I showed it to her and told her how bad my condition was getting. I was grateful to learn that they form in the Eustachian tube, the hole on each side of the hanging ball in the back of your throat. She even told me that I can get rid of them completely by taking the end of a toothbrush and while using a flash light to aim, I can squeeze them out of those holes by pushing the wall of the back of my throat and running the brush stem with pressure to the hole but not put the stem in the Eustachian hole itself. I did it and after a couple seconds the tonsil stones started coming out one after another. There were so many it was crazy.

The next day I noticed that I could hear better and my ears stopped popping when I swallowed. Also the pain in my left ear went away. In the year 2012 alone I was diagnosed with Eustachian tube dysfunction twice and given a steroid and allergy meds to clear my ears up. I even told the doctor about the tiny balls and he didn't listen, and still gave me the meds. Do doctors not know about the tonsil stones? I have been looking for months on the internet to find out the name of the stones, but this is the first page I found that had anything to do with them.

I was excited to talk with someone else about it. No one has been able to help me but the girl in my English class.


Has anyone here ever had tonsil stones? My brother has them, and he says they are very disgusting.

He has always had problems with post-nasal drip, and this mucus sometimes gets caught inside the little pits in his tonsils. Bacteria gets in there, too, and these little cream-colored stones form.

He coughs them up, and he gags when he does, because they smell so nasty. He has heard that you can only get rid of them by having your tonsils surgically removed, but he really doesn't want to do that. Does anyone know if there is another way to get rid of the stones?


@gravois – I would think that strep throat swells the tonsils. I haven't heard of swollen tonsils actually contributing to strep throat.

I'm in my thirties, and I get strep throat about as often as your daughter. I still have my tonsils, though. I just think that I catch strep throat from other people, so I don't suspect that having swollen tonsils before has anything to do with how often I get it, but I could be wrong.

Strep throat is the worst. My tonsils swell up so much when I get it that I can barely even swallow my saliva. I absolutely have to see a doctor when this happens.


I have seen swollen tonsils cause snoring in my friend's two-year-old. This isn't just light snorting now and then, either. It's the full-blown kind that sounds like a chainsaw!

The girl fell asleep in church awhile back, and she started snoring so loudly that no one could concentrate. A wave of giggles filtered throughout the congregation, and the pastor had to stop and acknowledge that it was funny. My friend then took her girl to the nursery.

She is having her tonsils removed soon, and I think it's a good idea. In addition to snoring, she has trouble breathing through her nose, so that might help this, as well.


My tonsils became swollen often when I was in elementary school. I think this was because I was around other children so much, and I was exposed to so many more germs than I had been at home.

I had to go to my doctor several times a year with my sore throat issues, and after my third time in one year, he recommended that I have my tonsils removed. I'm glad that my mother protested, because after about a year, I quit having sore tonsils so often.

I'm also glad that I kept my tonsils after reading here that they can help my immune system. It would have been tragic to have had them removed, only to suffer more infections than I would have had in the first place.


What is the relationship between swollen tonsils and strep throat? Does one cause the other?

My daughter seems to get strep throat about once a year and she has also had many problems with her tonsils. Her doctor has never suggested a link but I have to think that something is going on.


When I was a child I suffered from swollen tonsils on a number of occasions. This was painful in its own right but it also contributed to a number of childhood illnesses. My doctor recommended to my parents that they be removed so I had them taken out when I was 7.


Argh. My tonsils hurt when I swallow.


I had absolutely no idea that there were more than one pair of tonsils!!!

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