It’s time for another instalment of Burning Questions, the column where I answer the health questions that you maybe don’t want in your google history. As a reminder, this is not medical advice and I’m not a doctor. Today, we’re talking tonsil stones.
Is there any way to dislodge/prevent tonsilliths from forming? I don’t get them often but I hate them so, so much.
You’re ahead of most of the rest of us, Stoncils, in knowing what those things are called. Tonsilliths, or tonsil stones, are little stinky white lumps — sometimes hard like rocks, hence the name — that sprout from our tonsils at the back of our mouths.
I get them too, if infrequently. You get the sensation that something is stuck in your throat, and you try to dislodge it with the side of your tongue. (This inevitably happens in public or while you’re on a zoom call, meaning you’re both worried about this thing in your throat and you’re trying to surreptitiously investigate and/or dispose of it without anyone noticing.)
Usually this doesn’t work, so you have to go to the bathroom mirror and poke at your tonsil with a finger or a well-chosen tool like a q-tip or the smooth end of a toothbrush. You gag, and if you’re lucky, the stinky stone pops out. Maybe you swallow it. Maybe you spit it out and marvel at how large or weird or gross it looks. (A typical tonsillith is about the size of a popcorn kernel, but they vary.)
As we’ve mentioned before, tonsil stones are totally normal. They result from dead bacteria and cells that build up in the internal folds of your tonsils. Fun fact: these tunnel-like folds are called tonsillar crypts. Tonsils themselves are part of our immune system. They can detect bacteria and viruses, produce antibodies and communicate with the rest of the immune system.
So, what can you do about them? Unfortunately, not much. If you get tonsil stones that are large enough and frequent that you consider it a potential medical issue, a doctor might recommend removing your tonsils.
Otherwise, oral hygiene may help to prevent tonsilliths from forming, or allow you to dislodge them when they’re smaller and slightly less gross. A few things that reportedly help:
- Swishing or gargling with mouthwash
- Gargling with salt water
- Using a waterpik, which otolaryngologist Jennifer Setlur told Everyday Health is the “safest noncontact method” for removing stones.
That’s it for this question, but my inbox is still open to discuss any weirdnesses related to health, medicine or the human body. Email me at [email protected] and make sure to put “BURNING QUESTION” in the subject line.
PS. The largest tonsillith recorded in the medical literature was 1.6 inches long.