You’ve heard of kidney stones and gallstones… but tonsil stones? Yes, they exist — and until now, they were a common problem that few had heard of. Public awareness is growing, however, since bloggers began sharing solutions amongst themselves online. Formally known as tonsilloliths, these hard, pea-sized (or smaller) masses form on the tonsils and can cause discomfort, pain and very bad breath, though they’re not really dangerous.
I spoke with Dr. Jordan Josephson, director of the New York Nasal & Sinus Center in New York City and author , who told me that tonsils aren’t smooth, but rather have a bumpy surface with lots of nooks and crevices; this creates a ripe environment for bacteria, dead cells and food particles to get trapped. This debris can concentrate and harden into whitish pellets over time, most especially in people with large tonsils and/or who suffer from chronic inflammation of the tonsils or repeated bouts of tonsillitis. Chronic sinusitis and gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) make tonsil stones more common as well — and when those conditions flare up, so do the tonsil stones. The resulting bad breath can be horrible.
What’s the Problem with Tonsil Stones?
Small tonsil stones are completely unnoticeable, and cause no uncomfortable symptoms. Some people are unaware they have them until their dentist or doctor points them out, while others may have large stones that can be seen if you peer down your own throat. But they can still be bothersome in a number of ways:
- Bad breath. Tonsil stones often are accompanied by the kind of rancid breath that makes others back away from you (think spoiled deviled eggs). This is caused by the buildup of sulfur-producing bacteria and decaying food fragments.
- Sore throat. Tonsil stones can feel like something is caught in your throat. They can be especially painful if they occur with tonsillitis.
- Coughing. Large stones can dislodge and cause irritation that makes you cough them up.
- Ear pain. The tonsils and ears share the same nerve pathway, which means that some people with tonsil stones suffer referred pain that makes it seem like it is coming from the ear.
Other nasty symptoms can occur simultaneously. For instance, your sinuses may flare up at the same time, causing postnasal drip and worsening your tonsil stones. GERD can cause burning of your esophagus, heartburn and indigestion which worsens your bad breath as well.
Getting Rid of Tonsil Stones
What can you do to rid yourself of these offensive little stones? Some bloggers report using moistened cotton swabs to dislocate the stones, but Dr. Josephson says that is not a good idea, since dislodged cotton fibers can add to the irritation and there also is the danger of aspiration.
Instead, he suggests, focus on oral hygiene techniques that minimize the odds you’ll even get them lodged in your tonsils. These include…
- Brush your teeth after every meal and floss daily. This is basic oral hygiene, which reduces the likelihood stones will develop.
- Gargle twice a day. This helps prevent the accumulation of debris. Use a mixture of eight ounces of warm water to one-quarter teaspoon of salt.
- Avoid eating after your evening brush-and-gargle. If you have GERD (or a hiatal hernia, which also can cause reflux), Dr. Josephson recommends that you not eat for three or four hours before bedtime. This helps keep you from refluxing when you lie down, which Dr. Josephson believes can worsen tonsil stones.