Tonsil stones are small, off-white deposits of hardened debris that form in the back of the throat. The stones, also called tonsilloliths - not to be confused with tonsillitis, which is inflammation of the tonsils - can be a painful problem that triggers bad breath and throat soreness, along with difficulty swallowing.
Your tonsils are part of the lymphatic system, which fights infection - in fact, tonsils are the first line of defense in the throat. However, because they are filled with nooks and crannies, tonsils can sometimes backfire, trapping a combination of mucus and dead cells that calcify in small pockets.
The most common symptoms that alert people of tonsil stones include:
Bad breath: Tonsil stones are caused by a buildup of smelly sulfur-producing bacteria and debris that become lodged in the tonsils, so chronic bad breath is one of the surefire signs that you may have tonsil stones.
Sore throat: Tonsil stone sufferers will likely feel a dull soreness in the area where it is stuck. It sometimes feels like having a foreign object caught in the back of the throat that you cannot seem to swallow. This may be accompanied by difficulty swallowing foods or liquids.
White debris: Some tonsil stones can be spotted in the back of the throat as a lump of solid white-yellow material. To investigate, shine a flashlight in the mirror so it illuminates the throat. Caveat: Just because you do not see them does not mean they aren't there. Often they are hidden in the folds of the tonsils. In these cases, they may only be detectable with non-invasive scanning techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging or computerized tomography scans.
Ear pain: As odd as it sounds, people with tonsil stones sometimes complain of ear discomfort. Due to shared nerve pathways, an individual may encounter ear pain, even though the stone itself is not touching the ear.
It's worth pointing out that if you do not have tonsils, you will likely not experience tonsil stones.
Overall, tonsil stones are fairly misunderstood and often misdiagnosed by doctors. That's because it's quite rare to have a solidified tonsil stone. When they do form, the stones tend to develop in people who have chronic inflammation in their tonsils or repeated bouts of tonsillitis.