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Have you ever had the sensation that something’s stuck in the back of your throat and you’re not sure what it could be? You cough a few times and try to clear your throat, but that weird feeling just won’t go away. There’s a possibility it could be a tonsil stone. If you haven’t had one before, you’re pretty lucky. But if you have, you know that they’re uncomfortable, annoying, and pretty stinky.
What are tonsil stones, exactly? Why do we get them? And how do we get rid of them once and for all? Let’s take an (unpleasant) look.
What Are Tonsil Stones?
Also known as tonsilloliths, tonsil stones are harmless lumps of debris that look like small white or yellow pebbles. Tonsil stones form and become caught inside craters in your tonsils, which medical experts refer to as tonsillar crypts. The stones are believed to be made up of bacteria, mucus, food, dead cells, and other substances, and have an unpleasant smell due to the presence of sulfur.
Although all people (who still have their tonsils) have tonsillar crypts, not everyone gets tonsil stones. Why? According to Mentalfloss.com, the answer’s not entirely known, although some attribute it to chronic inflammation or sinus issues. Tonsil stones also seem to be more common in people with a history of tonsillitis and/or with large tonsils.
Although the exact cause is unknown, a recent study published in Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, Oral Radiology, revealed that the prevalence of tonsil stones in its participants increased with age, and the rate and size of the stones increased in men when compared to women. The study also revealed that the mean age for participants with tonsil stones was 39.8 and that 80 percent of the participants had ovoid-shaped tonsils as opposed to sphere, rod, plurilobular, or amorphous-shaped tonsils.
3 FACTS ABOUT YOUR TONSILS (AND THEIR STONES)
- One normal tonsil can have dozens of tonsillar crypts.
- The largest tonsil stone recorded to date was 14.5 centimeters (5.71 inches!) and was reported in 1936.
- One recent study hypothesized that tonsil stones don’t form as a result of chronic inflammation, but rather when saliva gets trapped inside the tonsillar crypts.
Tonsil Stone Symptoms
Most people who get tonsil stones from time to time are already aware they have them, but if you’ve never seen or felt them in your own tonsils, they may be hiding. In fact, there may even be a possibility that stones have dislodged from your tonsils by themselves and you’ve swallowed or rinsed them away without even realizing. The following symptoms, according to Medical News Today, may serve as clues:
- Bad breath
- The sensation that something is stuck in the back of your throat or mouth
- Pressure and/or pain in your ears
- A metallic taste in your mouth
How to Remove Tonsil Stones
Depending on the size of the tonsil stones and how deep your tonsillar crypts are will determine how easy (or difficult) it will be to remove them yourself at home. Some are large enough that they jut out of your tonsils and become visible. If you can actually see the stones when you open your mouth in front of a mirror, try one of the following tips to remove them:
- Lightly press a cotton swab against the tissue around the stone to coax it out toward the front of your mouth.
- Use a water pick to flush the stone away.
- Vigorously gargle with saltwater or a 50/50 mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water.
If the tonsil stone is being stubborn and causing you discomfort, pay a visit to your ENT, who can remove it safely using special instruments. Using anything pointy or sharp to dig it out yourself can cause bleeding, irritation, or infection, or it can cause the stone to be pushed down further. So be sure to see a professional if necessary.
If you manage to remove a tonsil stone, don’t be alarmed if another one (or two) pops up behind it. Often, the first stone that you see is a small piece of a larger stone that is settled deep inside your tonsillar crypt and is too large to dislodge itself in one piece.
Tonsil Stone Treatment
While some people get tonsil stones every once in a while, others find it to be a chronic issue. Unfortunately, there aren’t many conventional treatment options to choose from.
Some ENTs may recommend a procedure called coblation tonsil cryptolysis, where a laser is used to reshape the tonsils and close the tonsillar crypts where the stones form. The procedure can be completed under local anesthetic. However, because there’s a chance the stones could grow back, coblation tonsil cryptolysis isn’t a permanent solution.
The last resort is to remove the tonsils permanently. A tonsillectomy, however, is rarely recommended because most doctors feel that the surgery risks outweigh the benefits.
There are more choices, however, when it comes to natural treatment. DrAxe.com recommends gargling with apple cider vinegar to break down tonsil stones and eating raw garlic to kill the bacteria that causes the stones to grow (and smell). Oil pulling with coconut, olive, or sesame oil can also help reduce the levels of bacteria in your mouth.
How to Prevent Tonsil Stones
Perhaps the best way to deal with tonsil stones is to prevent them from forming in the first place. You can do this by practicing good oral hygiene, according to LiveScience.com. Brushing, flossing, and visiting your dentist regularly will prevent bacteria and plaque from building up in your mouth, which can lead to the formation of tonsil stones. And if you use mouthwash, choose one that’s free of alcohol, which can encourage the growth of stones.
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