Nobody wants to find weird, gross, smelly, or scary things anywhere in, on, or around their bodies. For millions of people around the globe, however, this is an everyday reality that presents itself in virtually countless forms, and some are way worse than others.
At the end of the day, we’re just animals. And even though our brains may be more advanced than other species on the planet, our immensely complex bodies are still susceptible to plenty of nasty—albeit fascinating—conditions. From major diseases to normal skin rashes to minor cuts, swells, bruises, and bumps, just about everyone has experienced something strange and gross happening to their body at some point in their life.
But one of the least understood—and most noticeable—things that our bodies can do that really can get gross is produce and harbor tonsil stones. The source of confusion, discomfort, bad tastes, and worse breath, tonsil stones are curious byproducts that can stay lodged in your mouth and throat and cause discomfort, minor pain, and very bad breath. If you have tonsil stones, you definitely should not ignore them. Are you worried about tonsil stones? Here’s everything you need to know about them!
Our Gross Bodies
Before we understand what a tonsil stone is, we have to understand the anatomy of our mouth.
Today (and probably for all of history before that), it seems like so many people are obsessed with the most gross and revolting parts of our bodies as well as the most disgusting things that can happen to them. Pimple popping. Hair plucking. Earwax melting and removing. Cyst draining. Ingrown hair excavating. Joint popping. Bone cracking. You name it, people love it. And in our ever-connected digital world, it’s become easier than ever to share these morbid hobbies with videos and social media galore. (Just take “Dr. Pimple Popper,” AKA Dr. Sandra Lee, who has over 2.7 million followers on Instagram and over 3.6 million subscribers on YouTube thanks to her artfully gory videos of squeezing, pinching, popping, and removing pimples, blackheads, cysts, and so much more.)
But for as many gross things we can see happening on the exterior, there is just as much (if not more!) disgusting stuff happening on the inside. Whether in your eyes, mouth, ears or nose, we’ve all experienced disturbing cuts, bumps, and lumps, but not all of us will experience the mysterious tonsil stone in our lifetime.
What are tonsil stones?
Also known as tonsilloliths, tonsil stones are small, whitish lumps of bacteria and other debris that have collected inside our mouth and aggregated in the rear sides on either tonsil.
First thing’s first: When it comes to these peculiar little masses, one of the most common questions is, “Can I get tonsil stones if I don’t have tonsils?” The short answer here is no. So for those of who have had our tonsils removed, whether due to recurring infections, obstructive problems while sleeping, or for other reasons, tonsil stones should not be a problem! That being said, if you’re somebody who gets tonsil stones often, doctors do not advice seeking to get your tonsils removed simply for that reason.
Tonsil stones are tiny, white or off-white balls or lumps that can range in size from being extremely small, such as the size of a grain of rice, to being much larger. (Some people have reported having tonsil stones the size of grapes!) Though often harmless, tonsil stones are especially infamous for their unsightly appearance and more so for their putrid smell. A major cause of bad breath, tonsil stones are especially nasty due to their rotten smell, which can linger even after a tonsil stone has been removed.
Why the tonsils?
Bizarre in both appearance and in nature, your tonsils are a collection of lymphoid tissues most noticeably located on either side of the rear of the mouth, right at the top of the throat. The two tonsils that are easiest to see when looking into your mouth, and which people often mistake to be the entirety of the tissue, are technically just the palantine tonsils.
It is on and around these specific sections of the tonsils, as well as in the tonsillar crypts which cover them and increase their surface area, that tonsil stones can develop and grow. While seemingly bizarre—and unnecessary for people who have gotten them removed—tonsils serve the important purpose of detecting harmful foreign entities in our bodies. As part of the lymphatic system, tonsils are often referred to as our bodies’ first line of defense against infection and disease. They can immediately pick up on the presence of any pathogens that we may have ingested or inhaled, and then they alert other cells and defenses in our bodies, which immediately begin to respond if our immune system is functioning properly.
You’re probably familiar with one or more people who have gotten their tonsils removed. This can happen for a number of reasons, and although the number of tonsillectomies performed in the United States has gone down over the past few decades, the surgery is still recommended in cases of recurring tonsillitis or varying situations where the tonsils obstruct someone’s airway. Medical experts still debate whether tonsillectomies have negative or neutral effects on our overall immune system.