Are Troublesome Tonsil Stones Causing Your Bad Breath?

Why these deposits cause problems for some people

tonsil stone

If you suffer from bad breath but can’t pinpoint the cause, a little-known problem with your tonsils may be the culprit.

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Most people probably don’t think much about their tonsils or even what purpose they serve. But for some, the tonsils are a continuing source of annoyance and pain. Small calcium deposits — called tonsil stones — can build up regularly. They’re not a serious health risk, but they can harden and grow, and they sometimes need attention.

If you’ve never heard of tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths or tonsilliths, you’re probably not alone.

A primer on tonsils

Your tonsils help fight infection, according to head and neck specialist Kyra Osborne, MD. The small, soft, fleshy bits of tissue sit at the back of the mouth on both sides. They can help detect and filter bacteria and viruses that enter through the mouth. Tonsils do this by producing white blood cells and antibodies.

Your tonsils are covered with the same mucous membrane, or mucosa, that lines your mouth, nose and throat. It’s the crevices, or crypts, in your tonsils’ mucosa that may lead to problems.

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Signs of tonsil stones

When food or debris get caught in the crevices of your tonsils, they sometimes harden or calcify, forming temporary calcium deposits.

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These deposits are often small, invisible to the naked eye and harmless. “Some people may not have any symptoms,” says Dr. Osborne. “There’s no medical concern if the tonsil stones aren’t causing problems.”

For others, however, tonsil stones cause noticeable problems. The most common signs and symptoms are:

  • Bad breath
  • Throat irritation
  • A whitish node or bump on your tonsil

Bad breath and throat irritation can also be signs of tonsillitis. But tonsillitis is caused by viruses or bacteria and generally causes red, inflamed tonsils, as well as fever, headache and other symptoms.

“Some people can develop tonsil stones once or twice, while others can get them several times a week,” says Dr. Osborne.

People with lots of crevices, or crypts, in their tonsils are more susceptible to tonsil stones. Although they are more common in teens, anyone with tonsils can get them.

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Tips for prevention and treatment

Tonsils stones develop from food and other substances that get stuck in the tonsils. The best way to prevent them is to keep your tonsils free of debris.

Dr. Osborne recommends brushing your teeth and tongue thoroughly, and gargling after eating to help prevent any buildup. Water picks help to flush out the mouth as well, which may help dislodge tonsil stones near the surface.

Many people self-treat tonsil stones at home, removing them with a toothbrush or cotton swab. If the deposits dislodge easily, removing them yourself generally won’t present a problem.

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For those with recurring, troublesome tonsil stones, a tonsillectomy is sometimes the best option. Outpatient surgery to remove the tonsils will eliminate any problems they cause.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” says Dr. Osborne. “If the tonsil stones happen frequently and they’re bothersome to you, surgery may be the right treatment.”

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