What are tonsils?
Your tonsils are two round, fleshy masses in the back of your throat (pharynx). Part of your immune system, your tonsils are like lymph nodes. They help filter out germs that enter through your nose or mouth to protect the rest of your body from infection. Tonsils are also called palatine tonsils or faucial tonsils.
Sometimes tonsils can become red, swollen or infected. If this issue becomes chronic or doesn’t get better, your healthcare provider might recommend a tonsillectomy (tonsil removal). Typically, people who have their tonsils removed can still fight off infection without any problems. Your body can find other ways to combat germs.
What’s the purpose of tonsils?
The main function of tonsils is fighting infection. Your tonsils contain a lot of white blood cells, which help kill germs. As your tonsils are in the back of your throat, they can “catch” germs that enter your body through your nose or mouth.
Where are your tonsils?
Your tonsils are near the back of your throat, just behind your soft palate. There are two of them — one on each side.
What do my tonsils look like?
If you still have your tonsils, you can see them when you open your mouth wide and look in the mirror. They’re oval-shaped, pinkish mounds of tissue located on each side of your throat.
What color are my tonsils?
Healthy, normal tonsils are pinkish in color. But your tonsils can appear red and swollen if they’re inflamed or infected.
How big are the average tonsils?
Tonsil size varies significantly from person to person. But based on one research study:
- The average overall tonsil size is 42.81 cubic centimeters (cm3).
- The average tonsil size in women and people assigned female at birth is 37.65 cm3.
- The average tonsil size in men and people assigned male at birth is 52.4 cm3.
To put this into perspective, each of your tonsils is slightly larger than a marshmallow.
Conditions and Disorders
What are some conditions that affect tonsils?
There are a few different conditions that can affect your tonsils. The most common is tonsillitis — an infection of the tonsils. Bacteria and viruses can cause tonsillitis, and the infection can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). The most common tonsillitis symptoms include a sore throat and swollen tonsils.
Other conditions that can affect your tonsils include:
- Strep throat. Caused by a bacterium known as Streptococcus, strep throat can cause sore throat, neck pain and fever.
- Tonsil stones. Also called tonsilloliths, tonsil stones are small white or yellow lumps in your tonsils. They can lead to tonsil pain, bad breath or bad taste.
- Peritonsillar abscess. A pocket of infection that pushes your tonsil to the other side of your throat, a peritonsillar abscess can cause difficulty swallowing or breathing. (If this happens, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Prompt treatment is essential.)
- Mononucleosis. Caused by a herpes virus called Epstein-Barr, mononucleosis can result in swollen tonsils, sore throat, fatigue and skin rash.
- Enlarged (hypertrophic) tonsils. Larger-than-normal tonsils can block your airway, leading to snoring or sleep apnea.
- Tonsil cancer. The most common form of oropharyngeal cancer, tonsil cancer is often linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Symptoms include tonsil pain, a lump in your neck and blood in your saliva (spit).
Are there tests to check the health of my tonsils?
Yes. If your healthcare provider suspects an issue with your tonsils, they may recommend:
- A bacterial culture test. Your provider rubs a cotton swab on your throat and tonsils. Then, they send the sample to a lab for analysis. A throat culture can check for different bacterial infections, including tonsillitis, strep throat and pneumonia.
- Blood tests. If your provider thinks your tonsil pain is due to mononucleosis, they can request a monospot test. This blood test detects certain antibodies, which can help confirm your diagnosis. (If the monospot test comes back negative, they can check for Epstein-Barr antibodies in your blood. This can also help determine whether you have mononucleosis.)
What are common treatments for conditions affecting the tonsils?
Treatment for inflamed or infected tonsils depends on the underlying cause. For example:
- If you have a bacterial infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics.
- If you have a peritonsillar abscess, your provider will likely drain it so the infection doesn’t spread.
- If you have tonsil stones, your provider might try laser resurfacing. If that doesn’t work, they’ll likely recommend a tonsillectomy (tonsil removal).
- If you have chronic (repeated) tonsil infections, your provider may recommend a tonsillectomy.
How can I keep my tonsils healthy?
In general, you can reduce your risk for bacterial and viral infections with frequent handwashing. You should also avoid sharing food, beverages or eating utensils with someone who’s sick.
If you’re prone to tonsil stones, you can try to prevent them by practicing good oral hygiene. This includes brushing and flossing daily and visiting your dentist for regular checkups.
But it’s important to understand that some people are just more vulnerable to tonsil infections. Aside from tonsillectomy, there may not be a surefire way to prevent the problem from returning. That’s why your provider may recommend a tonsillectomy if other treatments don’t solve the issue.
When should you have your tonsils removed?
Tonsillectomy is most commonly done in children with frequent tonsil infections. But adults can have tonsillectomies, too.
Healthcare providers often recommend tonsillectomy for people who have chronic sore throats. For example, if you’ve had several throat infections in the last one to three years, it might be time to consider a tonsillectomy.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your tonsils are small but mighty. When they function normally, they help shield your body from many different types of infections. But if your tonsils get infected frequently, it might be time to consider a tonsillectomy. To learn more about your tonsils and the procedures that can treat them, talk to your healthcare provider.
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