Tonsil stones are a fairly common condition, although they may not be easy to diagnose or understand. These stones have also been known as tonsilloliths and consist of mucus, dead cells, and other debris that can collect in the tonsils and then will condense into small, light-colored globes. Usually the stones are smaller than a pencil eraser and are coughed up periodically. The reason why food can collect in the tonsils is because of their basic function. Tonsils act as sentinels and are present at the back of the throat to protect the lungs and intestines from any bacteria or other materials, so it’s not unusual for food particles or bacteria to get stuck in them.
According to an article published in the New York Times, tonsil stones are fairly common but not considered as a pathological condition so very few research reports have been published about them. However, this lack of information has led some to ask whether cancer of the tonsils can be caused by tonsil stones. Since tonsil stones can often have the same appearance as malignant growths, this concern is understandable, but unfounded.
In reality, there are only a few risk factors identified for throat cancers according to the Mayo Clinic. These risk factors include tobacco use and excessive alcohol use in addition to the human papillomavirus and a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables. Throat cancer also refers to any type of cancerous tumor that develops in the throat, voice box, or tonsils so it’s a common misconception that tonsil stones may somehow related to throat cancer.
According to Dr. Greene, a well-known practitioner and author for The New York Times, there is no connection between tonsil stones and throat cancer. Microscopic studies of the stones have been shown to contain a wide variety of particles from food and bacteria, oral debris, and white blood cells. There have never been any malignant growths found near or in these stones, so they do not pose a danger to people who experience them.
However, while these stones are not dangerous, they can be uncomfortable and cause other health problems. The most common symptoms associated with tonsil stones are a sore throat, tonsillitis, and bad breath according to a 2007 study at the State University of Campinas in Brazil. In most cases, no specific treatment is needed, but some lifestyle modifications may be beneficial. Rinsing out the mouth with water after a meal or gargling with mouthwash can help to prevent buildup in the tonsils. Also being sure to avoid eating 30 minutes before going to bed is a preventative measure. In some extreme cases where tonsil stones are consistently large and prevent normal function, it may be recommended to remove them. Tonsil removal is possible using a local numbing agent and once they are removed, the stones will not have a place to form. However, a doctor will not typically recommend this course of treatment until other less invasive methods have been tried.
Another treatment was recently published in the Ear, Nose, and Throat Journal with a new treatment specifically developed to treat tonsil stones. This technique is known as coblation tonsil cryptolysis. It’s unique because it can actually be performed in adult patients using just a local anesthesia. The pain from this procedure is also typically mild and a normal diet and activity can be resumed within a week of the treatment while a tonsillectomy would require several weeks.
This process uses radio frequency energy to excite electrolytes and will be much less invasive than other treatments. While this treatment may not be available at every doctor’s office, specialists should be able to offer their patients this option or refer them for treatment. This treatment option is still typically not the first line of treatment, but is growing in use due to its practicality and ease of use.
Because tonsil stones are most common in children who have larger tonsils, many parents worry about tonsil stones and their potential related disease. However, the risks are minimal and will usually disappear as the child ages and the tonsils shrink. In some severe cases, it may be recommended to remove tonsils for practical purposes, but cancer of the tonsils is not a risk that has been found to be associated with tonsil stones.
(Photo Credit – Alin S)