Why Your Tonsils Are More Important Than You Think

Tonsils are one of those body parts, kind of like the appendix, which tends to be shrouded in mystery and controversy ('are they really necessary?'). Getting one's tonsils removed (aka tonsillectomy) used to be so common it was practically a rite of passage for American kids. But as doctors have learned more about what our tonsils actually do for us, the procedure has become much less common, and most doctors now take a far more conservative approach to the surgery than in decades past.

Tonsils play an important role as part of the body's immune system. Those oval blobs of soft lymphatic tissue at the back of the throat actually act as watch guards for the throat and lungs. They trap, filter, and attack harmful bacteria and viruses that are inhaled through the mouth or nose before they have a chance to get into the throat and lungs (via Live Science). They also produce white blood cells and antibodies which work to destroy pathogens. Pediatrician Dr. Cindy Gellner notes, "Their main job is to help stop bacteria from getting farther down the throat" (via University of Utah Health).

A sore throat can be a symptom of tonsillitis

Even though tonsils play an important role in keeping us healthy, they can become infected and enlarged for a number of reasons. Craig Zalvan, M.D., associate professor of clinical otolaryngology at New York Medical College, explains, "There are many causes of tonsil swelling. It's almost always a benign process related to some type of inflammation — viruses, infections, allergies — that can either fluctuate or resolve with treatment" (via Prevention). Ear infections, viruses, bacterial infections like strep throat, acid reflux, and even tonsil stones (or tonsilloliths), can all cause tonsils to become swollen.

More often than not, swollen tonsils will resolve on their own within a week once the underlying issue has been treated. Healing can be helped along, though, by drinking plenty of fluids, gargling with salt water, and taking over-the-counter pain medicine. In the case of strep throat, antibiotics are needed to kill the infection, as serious complications can develop if left untreated (via Live Science).

In severe cases of tonsillitis, a tonsillectomy may be necessary. Donald Levine, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Nyack, New York, advises, "When they become obstructive or chronically infected, then they need to be removed" (via Mental Floss). Fortunately, a tonsillectomy is still a relatively low-risk surgery, just like it was a generation or two ago.