Tonsil stones: a tiny stone in your mouth that can lead to big problems
Do you often need to check your breath to make sure it’s fresh? If you often find your breath has an unpleasant odor you are certainly not alone. It is estimated that 50 million Americans suffer from bad breath each year and the causes aren’t always what you think.
While many smelly mouths may be caused by a lack of good oral hygiene, there can also be one small reason for this stinky problem: tonsil stones. You could easily have this smelly problem in your mouth and not even know it.
What are Tonsil Stones?
Tonsil stones, also called tonsilloliths to occur when debris gets caught in the crypts on your tonsils. Debris getting caught in your tonsils is actually a normal part of the function of your tonsils. This is because your tonsils are actually a part of your immune system. They act as a net to catch bacteria and other foreign objects before they enter the throat.
Your tonsils are made up of lymphoid tissue. Lymphoid tissue contains cells that fight off disease.
In order to perform their function well, your tonsils may change shape by swelling with blood to trap germs.
Your tonsils contain ‘crypts’ which are little caves in which debris may become trapped. Normally this debris will be dislodged and go down your throat unnoticed. While unpleasant to think about, it is the best case scenario. If the debris is not dislodged naturally it may stay and attract bacteria which can leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth and cause bad breath.
It can take on a ‘cheesy’ texture and may cause other symptoms. In some cases the stones may pick up mineral elements from your saliva and calcify. Then they take on a stone-like texture and can become problematic.
What do Tonsil Stones Look Like?
Many tonsil stones are not easily detected. They are all the way at the back of the throat and are often too small to notice. If you do see a stone it will likely be white, yellow, or grayish in color and about as big as the eraser at the end of your pencil. The stone may be round or take on a raisin-like shape due to its formation in the crypt.
While often unnoticeable, some stones will show up on an x ray.
How Big can Tonsil Stones Get?
Most stones are about 1-2 mm in length but not all people are so lucky. Recently a stone removal was recorded in the Saudi Medical Journal because of its unusually large size.
The patient was a 45-year-old man who had experienced recurrent tonsillitis and a sore throat. The article noted that recurrent tonsillitis and the inflammation associated are often linked with the formation of tonsil stones.
The man decided to undergo an elective stone removal and tonsillectomy. During the procedure, the medical team removed a stone that was 3.1 × 2.3 cm. You can check out just how big the stone was here.
While unusual stones like this one are rare, it is tiny compared to the biggest stone ever removed. The largest stone ever removed was more than 14 cm. It should be noted that this removed was in 1936 when oral hygiene was much more primary than it is today.
How are tonsil stones diagnosed?
In order to diagnose tonsil stones, your physician may:
- Carry out a physical exam that involves looking inside your mouth and throat.
- Perform an imaging scan if they stones aren’t visible.
- Dislodge the stones.
Signs and Symptoms of Tonsil Stones
One of the most common symptoms of tonsil stones is the prevalence of bad breath. That is because the stones often grow bacteria that can literally leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Along with bad breath, some people experience a persistent sore throat or even difficulty swallowing. As the ear and throat have shared nerve pathways, some sufferers experience ear pain even though the stone in the throat. Some stones may even cause the tonsil to swell or become larger.
Many of the symptoms of tonsil stones mimic other oral issues. A sore throat can also be linked to viral or bacterial throat infections, tonsillitis, or even tonsil cancer.
Causes of Tonsil Stones
While small occasional tonsil stones may be considered normal. Larger recurrent stones are often linked to repeated cases of tonsillitis or inflammation of the tonsil. There may also be a link between tonsil stones and, large tonsils, chronic sinus issues as well as poor dental hygiene. A study concluded that the bacteria that form tonsil stones are the same bacteria that can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, and oral infections. Tonsil stones are similar to the plaque that causes cavities and gum disease.
Tonsil Stones Treatment
Most tonsilloliths are typically harmless, but if they are causing discomfort or leading to a bad smell, they can be removed. Treatment options can vary and range from home remedies to surgical procedures.
Gargling vigorously with salt water may help ease throat discomfort and simultaneously aid in dislodging the tonsil stones. Moreover, it can help eliminate the odor caused by tonsil stones.
Coughing may help you loosen your stones, and it is possible to discover that you have stones after coughing leads to dislodging of a stone.
Coblation cryptolysis is a type of laser resurfacing procedure that has gained popularity. This procedure helps smooth out the crevices that trap the stones/debris in the first place.
Doctors perform this procedure under local anesthesia. Laser procedures may be preferred as they cause less discomfort and shorten recovery time.
In some cases, antibiotics are prescribed for tonsil stones. This may help prevent or treat an associated bacterial infection.
Tonsillectomy for tonsil stones is recommended for severe and chronic cases. A tonsillectomy is the term used to refer to surgical removal of your tonsils. This procedure can be carried out using a scalpel, laser, or coblation device.
While tonsillectomies (removal of the tonsils) used to be considered a routine procedure, they are now considered a last resort. One of the reasons for this is the risk of complications associated with the procedure, including bleeding.
While a tonsillectomy is a ‘cure’ for tonsil stones, it is usually only performed in extreme cases. While it is considered a generally safe procedure, it can produce risks.
- Swelling-related breathing difficulties
- Life-threatening reactions to anesthesia (this is rare)
How I can remove tonsil stones myself?
Many tonsil stones are removed naturally with the everyday tasks of eating and drinking. If you are noticing a frequent build-up of stones in your tonsils, your healthcare provider may recommend some basic ways you can remove tonsil stones at home such as:
- Gargling with salt water or non-alcohol mouthwash to naturally dislodge the stones
- Using a Waterpik to clean out the area
- Using a small instrument such as a cotton swab to dislodge the stones
For larger stones, it’s time to consult a doctor instead of attempting to remove them at home.
How To Prevent Tonsil Stones from Forming?
You can prevent tonsil stones by practicing daily tasks such as:
- Brush regularly.
- Floss on a regular basis.
- Use mouthwash.
- After eating, gargle with saltwater.
- Clean your mouth with a water pick to help dislodge any tonsil stones.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
For some people, the only possible true prevention of tonsil stones is to have a tonsillectomy. These are often cases where stones are associated with frequent tonsil inflammation and tonsillitis.
There is also a possibility to treat tonsil stones with laser resurfacing. The process is called coblation tonsil cryptolysis and reshapes the tonsils and reduces the number of crevices in which the stones can grow.
The procedure can be completed using a local anesthetic, and patients can resume a normal diet and activity after one week.
While it carries less risk than a tonsillectomy, it is not a guaranteed cure and tonsil stones may grow back again.
When to Consult a Doctor
Speaking to a doctor about pain in your throat doesn’t have to be a pain in the butt. Connect easily with one of our doctors 24 hours a day with the free Your Doctors Online app. One-click of a button can connect you with a real doctor absolutely free.
Don’t waste time sitting around in a waiting room when you could be chatting with a doctor instantly from the comfort of your own home.
FAQs About Tonsil Stones Answered by Your Doctors Online Team
You may require antibiotics to treat tonsil stones. Typically, antibiotics are not required. Although, antibiotics treat the infection, they don’t treat the underlying cause of tonsil stones.
Tonsil stones are quite common and don’t result in any serious health concerns. These can be treated at home. However, if they keep recurring, you may require further treatment.
Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils. Both conditions may result in throat pain and bad breath. Tonsillitis may be associated with red, inflamed tonsils and a sore throat, fever and headache.
While tonsil stones are usually harmless, they may lead to discomfort.
Tonsil stones are common, and they do not usually cause health problems. However, many people having tonsil stones are unaware that they have them.
Mainly, tonsil stones don’t cause any symptoms, but they can trigger infections and can be challenging to treat with antibiotics. In addition, tonsil stones don’t always cause symptoms.
Typically, tonsil stones are harmless and dislodge on their own in a short time. However, in some cases, they may last for weeks and get infected.
Tonsil stones can have a foul odor. They are often described as having a smell similar to sulfur, vomit or rotten eggs.
Food items such as popcorn, sesame seeds, and spinach can get stuck in the throat and over the tonsils or inside the crypts surrounding the tonsils, accumulating over time to form stones.
Warm water gargling, using a cotton swab to dislodge a stone, and vigorous coughing can help get rid of the stones.
Drinking fluids helps thin mucus and to keep the throat moist. Dryness in the throat leads to extra mucous production, which in turn leads to the formation of more tonsil stone.