Kidney stones, bladder stones, gallstones … tonsil stones? What? Most are familiar with the first three, but the last is nearly always a stumper. Since tonsil stones (or, tonsilloliths) only affect about 10% of the population, many people just don't know about them. However, of the percent that does get them, most are aware that something is amiss, but have no idea what they're experiencing. So, if you've ever coughed up an irregular lump of whitish-looking gunk from the back of your mouth and not known what the heck that stinky mess was, or if you have bad breath that no one seems to be able to put their finger on, well … you just might be among that “lucky” 10% who gets tonsilloliths.
What Exactly Is a Tonsillolith?
Tonsilloliths are a collection of calcified materials that collect in the crevices of our tonsils. While tonsil stones are certainly an unappealing fact of life for some of us, they're really no more than a nuisance for most. Surely, if you're suffering from regular halitosis as a result, you might find your predicament rather bothersome, but otherwise, tonsilloliths tend to migrate out of the oral cavity on their own, and other than causing occasional discomfort, pose no genuine threat to health.
With that in mind, however, we've got a few tips for you that can help prevent tonsilloliths from forming, in the first place, and what to do if you find yourself staring in the mirror at one lodged in the back of your throat.
Preventing Tonsil Stones
Keep a clean mouth: As with everything else dental-related, the best course of action to minimize the likelihood of getting tonsil stones is to follow a good oral care routine. Despite opinions on both sides of the fence regarding what actually causes tonsilloliths to form, good oral hygiene is universally recommended. If you're prone to this type of stone, gargling with salt water can help dislodge stubborn tonsilloliths while also helping to cleanse your mouth. Some doctors recommend a somewhat regular rinse of salt water for health benefits as it is, so why not give it a try?
Speak with an allergist: Since there is a body of evidence suggesting tonsilloliths are partially caused by post-nasal drip, visiting with an allergist to better control any allergies you may have could be a way to reduce the frequency of tonsilloliths. Stone sufferers might frequently find themselves experiencing coughing fits (particularly at night while laying down), as this post-nasal drip “tickles” the tonsil generating a coughing response. Be on the lookout for this telltale sign.
Surgery: Recurrent bouts with tonsil stones might cause some to seek a more complete solution, and in those cases, surgery can be of some help. By using a laser to flatten the ridges of the tonsil where material buildup results in tonsilloliths, surgery can reduce or eliminate one's proclivity to develop tonsoliths. Surgery, of course is costly and more risky as one ages. Tonsilectomy is also an option for persistent, painful cases.
How to Get Rid of a Tonsil Stone
Follow the advice of your parents: Everyone hates it, but it does work. Gargling with salt water has a variety of therapeutic benefits, the least of which may be helping to dislodge tonsil stones. Test it out if you're a sufferer. Also, some suggest drinking carbonated beverages can assist in loosening the makeup of stones so they eventually come out on their own.
Exercise that tongue! Since this debris lodges in the crypts of one's tonsils, disrupting the area by moving your tongue around to manipulate these tonsil crypts can cause the tonsilloliths to dislodge. Doing so while holding your head downward can prove to be particularly effective. A word of advice: generally speaking, if you notice you have a tonsillolith, don't expect this form of tongue gymnastics to work overnight. It'll take some concerted effort over a week or two depending on the size to dislodge it. Sometimes they'll dislodge while brushing your teeth, or even eating. Don't overdo it, though … just an occasional nudge will slowly loosen it from its home.
Water irrigation: Irrigation can work, but if it is too forceful it can cause damage to the tonsils. That's not a good trade-off. Most electronic irrigators, then, are far too strong for you to do this at home, and should not be used. Consult with your doctor or dentist for advice on a safe way to use water irrigation.
What NOT to do: Again, the advice of one's parents here is good to follow. Don't ever stick a sharp object into your mouth to extract a tonsillolith. Frankly, other than your toothbrush, you shouldn't be putting anything into your mouth to dislodge a tonsil stone. Swallowing a coffee stirrer or makeshift excavation device is dangerous and should not be attempted under any circumstances – no matter how many YouTubers suggest it’s a good idea.
Tonsiliths are a fact of life for a small portion of the populace, but if you're inclined to get them, they can be frustrating. Rest assured, there are preventative measures you can take to minimize their frequency, and should you find you have one, or two, or three, there are safe & effective ways to remove them as well. Got a question? Ask your dentist!