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What’s the deal with tonsil stones? Bad breath, irritation and a whitish mark at the back of your throat are a few signs that you may have a tonsil stone. But should you be particularly concerned about them? Not everyone develops tonsil stones and many people who do have them aren’t bothered by them. If you are concerned about those white things seemingly embedded in your tonsils, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about tonsil stones.

What Causes Tonsil Stones

When you open your mouth and say “awww,” you can usually see two glands, known as the tonsils, at the back of it. Your tonsils help your immune system by filtering viruses or bacteria that can make their way into your body through the mouth, or as the American Academy of Otolaryngology puts it, the tonsils are your “body’s first line of defence.”

As gross as it might sound, your tonsils are coated by mucous, which is the same mucous that lines the inside of your mouth. Along this lining is a number of pits and crypts. How many crypts the tonsils have varies from person to person. It’s in these crypts or pits that bits of food, bacteria and other debris can get stuck. The debris than can calcify or harden, turning into a tonsil stone. If you regularly have inflammation or irritation in your tonsils, you are more likely to develop tonsil stones.

Are They Causing Your Bad Breath?

Many people with tonsil stones don’t have any problems with them. As a 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research put it, tonsil stones are uncommon and are very small when they do occur. Although many people with tonsil stones don’t have any symptoms and might not even be able to see their tonsil stones, bad breath and other signs and symptoms can be connected to them.

Tonsil stones can be responsible for halitosis, and it might be linked to about 3 per cent of bad breath cases, as a review published in 2014 in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery noted. The review also pointed out that more research should be done to figure out how big of role tonsil stones and the tonsils play in causing bad breath.

Other Tonsil Stone Troubles

The larger the tonsil stone is, the more likely it is to cause symptoms, as a case report published in the Journal of Surgical Case Reports noted in 2014. The case report shared the story of a 17-year-old patient who had dysphagia, or trouble swallowing. The doctors who worked with her discovered a large tonsil stone on the left tonsil. The doctors removed both the stone and the tonsils from the patient.

What You Can Do About Them

Bad breath, trouble swallowing and inflammation – tonsil stones aren’t fun. The good news is that problems from tonsil stones can be rare. The even better news is that you can prevent them from occurring.

Brushing your teeth regularly will sweep any food bits, bacteria and other debris out of your mouth before it has a chance to get stuck in the tonsils. If you’re concerned about bad breath, whether related to tonsil stones or not, rinsing with a mouthwash will help freshen your breath and can help kill a majority of bacteria in the mouth.

If tonsil stones are causing you a lot of discomfort or other troubles, you’ll want to speak with your dentist or doctor. Although it’s not performed as often today as it once was, sometimes a tonsillectomy, or surgically removing the tonsils, is the best way to prevent tonsil stones and any other issues you have with the tonsils.

Think of your tonsils like the appendix of your mouth. They help your immune system, but if they’re causing you trouble, you can live without them.