What causes tonsil stones, and how can I get rid of them?
SUMMARY: Do you have bad breath and the uncontrollable urge to clear your throat? Watch out. You might have a tonsil stone lurking in the back of your mouth.
Posted: January 12, 2012
Plenty of things can lead to halitosis, but few are as gross as the tonsil stone. Found lodged in the back of the throat, these little objects are often no bigger than a grain of sand, yet they can pack quite a nasal wallop. What causes tonsil stones? And how do you get rid of them? Read on.
Unless you've had a tonsillectomy, it's likely you've had a tonsil stone before, whether you knew it or not. Also known as tonsilloliths, tonsil stones are small, whitish lumps that appear at the back of your throat, stuck in the folds of your tonsils or adenoids.
It may or may not be reassuring, but tonsil stones don't get stuck there all at once. Instead, they accumulate over time. In a way, they grow, much like a pearl does.
As you eat, food slides past your tonsils and down your throat. Typically, a little bit of this stuff sticks to the walls of your throat, if only temporarily. However, people with especially wrinkled tonsils can get little bits of food lodged in the folds of these glands.
At this point, the food is not a tonsil stone yet - it's just food. So what causes tonsil stones? In a word: bacteria.
When food gets caught in your tonsils, your oral microbes quickly get to work on it, digesting it, burrowing into it and even living on top of it. This layer of microorganisms is called a biofilm, and it gives off a stinky smell that we associate with bad breath.
This biofilm attracts more food particles, which attracts more bacteria, which attracts...you get the idea. In this way, tonsils stones can grow to be several millimeters across, and occasionally even larger.
So what can we do about them? Here are some tips for dislodging tonsil stones and preventing them from returning.
- Try coughing or hacking sharply. If a tonsil stone is especially loose, it may pop out on its own. (Do this over a sink, please.)
- With a cotton swab, you may be able to gently push loose a tonsillolith from its fold in your tonsil. Be careful, though. The back of your throat is very sensitive, and one wrong move could result in a painful poke.
- To truly wash away a tonsil stone, gargle with a specialty breath freshening mouthwash. The best kinds will oxygenate your palate, killing bacteria and odor in one fell swoop.