Only kids have their tonsils taken out, right? Think again. Many adults do in fact have tonsillectomies, and research shows they’re relatively safe.
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A tonsillectomy is removal of the tonsils when they cause difficulty breathing during sleep or recurring throat infections.
Experts say if you’re missing work for days at a time because of your throat, you should have your tonsils checked.
According to Michael S. Benninger, MD, Chairman of the Head & Neck Institute, if you have mild pain and miss a day of work a few times each year, you probably don’t need to have your tonsils removed.
However, if you get really sick a few times each year — sick to the point that you can’t swallow, and miss 7 to 10 days of work each time — then surgery may make sense for you.
“When I decide whether or not to recommend surgery, I base that decision on intensity of symptoms, frequency of symptoms and their impact on daily life,” he says.
A recent study of nearly 6,000 adults who had tonsillectomies found low complication and death rates that were similar to those of children. However, researchers also found that the reoperation rate in adults was 3.2%, usually for post-surgical bleeding — slightly higher than rates for children.
This may be because a tonsillectomy is a more complex procedure that causes more pain and bleeding in adults.
To understand why, you can start by understanding the structure of a tonsil. “In kids, the tonsils sit mostly in the throat,” Dr. Benninger explains. “With adults, they’ve become recessed into tissue and are harder to access.”
Also, with repeated infections, there is more scarring, which makes the tonsils more difficult to remove. Adults prone to tonsil inflammation tend to have had many more years of infections than children.
“I tell adults to expect soreness for a week,” Dr. Benninger says. “It’s not a fun operation, and people can experience more pain than they expected.”
Adults may feel like they don’t want to eat much for 7 to 10 days, while a child may want to eat a hamburger on the day of surgery.
The most common complication after surgery is bleeding or dehydration due to discomfort.
Now, researchers are focusing on preventing infections after operations in high-risk patients. Doing so could also help reduce the need for reoperation.
“I want to see what we can do to reduce postoperative bleeding and lessen pain,” Dr. Benninger says.
At one time, researchers thought antibiotics could dampen pain, but later studies did not prove this was useful. Researches have also tried various coating solutions.
“However, no techniques have yet been found that are foolproof — and these solutions will be the golden ticket,” Dr. Benninger says.