Are Tonsil Stones Dangerous? Those Viral Videos Have Some People Wondering

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I got my tonsils removed when I was in high school. They were always inflamed, making swallowing difficult, and they always had these white, smelly clumps on them. After years of dealing with this, I was sick of it. While all of my friends were living it up at Panama City Beach, I used my spring break to recover from a tonsilloadenoidectomy (goodbye forever, tonsils). I haven’t thought about my tonsils or those gross clumps since.

Fast forward eight years later. I’m switching between Twitter, my favorite news sites, and the latest episode of Black-ish when I come across this article about tonsil stone removal videos. Memories of my high school oral health come rushing back and I finally make the connection. No one ever told me that these clumps had an actual name — I just thought my tonsils were uniquely defective. And as many times as I stood in front of the mirror with my mouth wide open to remove my tonsils stones before homeroom, I could’ve been a YouTube sensation... if only I had the foresight to know that the internet would be obsessed with gross videos.

All this talk about tonsil stones got me to thinking: are tonsil stones dangerous? Did I narrowly escape a serious medical condition at the tender age of 16 without even realizing it? Should I include this ordeal in my memoir? Is ‘tonsil stones’ a new name? Because seriously, why didn’t anyone tell me what these things were called? I have an inkling that you have similar questions.

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First things first. Why do we have tonsils anyway? Tonsils are there to keep foreign objects from slipping into our lungs. They’re also lymph nodes that filter for bacteria and viruses. On top of all of that, they produce white blood cells and antibodies. Who knew those little squishy things in the back of your throat were working so hard?

Your tonsils work hard to protect your body from foreign objects. As such, when food or dirt gets stuck in the tonsils, white blood cells attack and leave hard particles behind. That’s how tonsil stones are formed.

Tonsil stones, which are also called tonsilloliths or tonsilliths, are benign accumulations of bacteria and debris in the crypts of some people's tonsils. Although they’re sometimes uncomfortable, they’re not usually dangerous and are easily treatable.

Most folks get them but don’t even realize it before swallowing them. You'll probably only notice them if you cough them up (or look down your throat after reading this article.) Even though a coughing fit may feel like choking, you can't choke on tonsil stones. Tonsil stones, it turns out aren’t stones at all: they’re living biofilm that breathe oxygen. Anyone else getting flashbacks to Osmosis Jones?

Though they shouldn't ordinarily hurt, tonsil stones can, however, cause a sore throat. And if you remove tonsil stones with your bare hands, you run the risk of transferring any bacteria from your hands to your mouth, potentially causing infection. Removing tonsil stones by yourself could result in an infection or bleeding, so be careful. Because of a shared nerve pathway, tonsil stones can also cause ear pain, though that pain isn't dangerous, and should resolve once you pop those suckers out.

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Folks with large tonsils and teenagers are more likely to get tonsil stones. Also, people with poor oral hygiene may also experience tonsil stones too. Remember to brush twice a day. That will keep your mouth free of food and other debris that can be turned into tonsil stones.

Dr. Greene, a pediatrician and author, suggests gargling, refraining from eating during the 30 minutes before falling asleep, and careful oral hygiene to help minimize tonsil stone formation on his website. If you already have tonsil stones, you can simply scrape them off with a toothbrush or cotton swab, or use a water pick to dislodge them. If they’re lodged too deep to scrape off yourself, an ear, nose, and throat specialist can remove them. And if you’re like I was and get tonsil stones way too often, you might want to discuss removing your tonsils with your doctor.

There you have it, folks. Tonsil stones are more of an annoyance than anything else. They're actually a byproduct of the body trying to keep you safe from an infection, so tonsil stones are more harmless than harmful. What a relief. So sit back, relax, and tune in to your favorite tonsil stone removal video.