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Tonsils and Tonsillectomies

Everybody's heard of tonsils. But not everyone knows what tonsils do or why they sometimes need to be removed.

What Are Tonsils and Tonsillitis?

Tonsils are lumps of tissue located on either side of the back of the throat, and they help fight infections.

tonsills

Tonsillitis happens when tonsils become infected by bacteria or viruses. The tonsils may become red and swollen or have a white or yellow coating on them. Other symptoms of tonsillitis can include:

  • sore throat
  • pain or discomfort when swallowing
  • fever
  • raspy voice
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck

Some healthy people have large tonsils, so it can be hard to judge whether tonsils are infected just by looking at them. If you think you may have tonsillitis, it's best to contact a doctor to find out for sure. Your doctor will examine you and maybe run some tests to find out what's causing the problem.

What Are Tonsillectomies?

A tonsillectomy is when someone's tonsils are removed during surgery. Because of success with antibiotics, surgery is no longer the standard treatment for tonsillitis that it was years ago. Left alone, enlarged tonsils may eventually shrink on their own.

A doctor may suggest removal of the tonsils under some circumstances — for example, if someone gets tonsillitis a lot or swollen tonsils make it hard to breathe or swallow. Difficulty breathing at night can be a problem for some people with swollen tonsils: A condition called obstructive sleep apnea (where somebody may stop breathing during sleep) can leave a person feeling tired and run down during the day.

What Happens During a Tonsillectomy?

Surgery can seem a bit scary, no matter how common or simple the procedure. If you're having a tonsillectomy, ask your doctor about what to expect. Surgeons have several different techniques for removing the tonsils. Your doctor will give you the details on your particular procedure.

During most tonsillectomies, surgeons remove the tonsils in an operating room while a person is under general anesthesia. The surgeon removes the tonsils through the mouth without making a cut on the skin. When the tonsillectomy is finished, the person is taken to the recovery area and will wake up there. In most cases, the total time in the hospital is 5 to 10 hours, but some people need to stay in the hospital overnight.

It can take a week or more to recover from a tonsillectomy. During recovery, a person will have a sore throat, which might make it uncomfortable to eat and drink.

In a traditional tonsillectomy, the tonsils are removed in their entirety. Another technique, called intracapsular (partial) tonsillectomy, has been shown to work as well as total tonsillectomy in some cases. This involves removing the inflamed tonsil tissue, but a small layer of tonsil tissue is left in place to protect the throat muscles. As a result, the recovery is much faster because most people notice less pain, don't need to use as much pain medication, and find it easier to eat and drink.

Intracapsular tonsillectomy has some disadvantages, though. Since some tonsil tissue remains, there's a very slight chance that it can re-enlarge or become infected and require more tonsil surgery. However, the risk of this happening is very small.

Reviewed by: Steven P. Cook, MD
Date reviewed: June 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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