If you suffer from bad breath but can’t pinpoint the cause, tonsil stones may be the culprit.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Most people probably don’t think much about their tonsils or even what purpose they serve. For some people, the tonsils are a continuing source of annoyance and pain. Tonsil stones are small calcium deposits that 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. Head and neck specialist Kyra Osborne, MD explains signs to look out for and tips for prevention and treatment.
What are tonsils?
Your tonsils help fight infection and 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.
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. 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 and some large stones are only discoverable during an X-ray for a different cause. The most common signs and symptoms are bad breath, throat irritation, swelling and a whitish node or bump on your tonsil.
Bad breath and throat irritation can also be signs of tonsillitis. However, tonsillitis is caused by viruses or bacteria and generally causes red, inflamed tonsils as well as fever, headache and other symptoms. While tonsillitis can affect people of all ages, it’s most common in children but rarely occurs in children under the age of 3.
“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.
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 with salt water 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.
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. A tonsillectomy usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes and is performed under general anesthesia. Talk to your doctor if removing all of your tonsils is best for you.
“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.”