This Is What Really Causes Tonsil Stones

Few people know what their tonsils are exactly. Most people only become aware of the small, fleshy structures on either side of their throat when they become inflamed. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is the result of the well-known infection, tonsillitis. The infection is most often viral, though a bacterial infection can lead to the same result. In the end, the tonsils are usually removed via a tonsillectomy, and, if the person is lucky, they get put on a brief diet of ice cream and other soft-cold foods to soothe their throat (via Children's Mercy Hospital Kansas).

People diagnosed with tonsil stones don't necessarily require surgery (or the benefit of ice cream) to alleviate the condition. Instead, people with tonsil stones are told to brush more regularly and gargle with warm salt water, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This is because, unlike tonsillitis, the cause of tonsil stones is often literally bigger than viruses or bacteria. And though both the viral and bacterial microscopic organisms can make tonsil stones worse, the real culprit is the food we eat every day.

A common cause

According to the Cleveland Clinic, tonsil stones develop as a result of food or other debris getting caught in small structures known as tonsillar crypts. These are small holes that are naturally part of human tonsils and while they normally don't cause any issues, they will swell if bits of chewed food get stuck inside. Bacteria can piggyback on these bits of debris and further inflame the tonsils. This swelling eventually turns into tonsil stones. Other symptoms accompany the condition such as an earache, halitosis or bad breath, coughing, and a tendency to spit up small white or yellow stones, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Doctors diagnose tonsil stones through either a visual exam or imaging procedures if the stones are too small to see. And while there are some surgical options for stone removal in extreme and/or recurring cases, most providers will remove them with a dental pick. To prevent further occurrences, patients can improve their dental hygiene routine (i.e., brush and floss regularly, including the back of the tongue), rinse with warm salt water, and even use a water pick. Some patients may be tempted to remove the stones at home, but the Cleveland Clinic warns against it, pointing out that people may scratch their tonsils, leading to further complications.