Tonsil Stones: Answers to All Your Questions

Published September 28th, 2021 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Tonsil stones, also called tonsilloliths, form a lump of calcified material at the back of the throat and may be caused by bacteria. If you have these deposits then it is likely they will become more and more noticeable over time. They can grow bigger from being exposed to food particles and other debris while breathing through your mouth at night when stomach acids make their way up into the throat causing bad breath. It's important to know what tonsil stones are and how they're treated because they can be a sign of inflammation or infection, which could lead to more serious problems. Keep reading as we answer all your questions about tonsil stones.

What are tonsil stones?

Have you ever experienced a weird sensation in your throat? Maybe it's something that feels like a rock, but when you look in the mirror, there is nothing there. You might be wondering if this feeling is caused by tonsil stones and what exactly they are. Tonsils stones form from mineral deposits on the surface of your tonsils. These accumulations can cause discomfort and other symptoms such as bad breath or difficulty swallowing. 

But what are tonsil stones? They're small calcified masses that form on the back of your tongue and/or at the top of your throat near your voice box where your tonsils are located. These calcifications form in the crevices and folds of your tonsils which are called your tonsil crypts. They can vary in size and range from a grain of sand to a pea. Sometimes they're so small that you won't even be aware of their presence until you suddenly feel something "grit-like" or gritty at the back of your throat when you swallow saliva, drink liquid, speak, or vomit. Tonsil stones can form on both your palatine tonsils, which are the tonsils at the back of your throat that you usually can see in the mirror, and lingual tonsils, which are located at the base of the tongue. 

What causes tonsil stones?

Tonsil stones are basically the result of a buildup in your tonsils. They can be caused by trapped food particles or other debris that mix with saliva, mucus, and bacteria, creating an environment perfect for the formation of those dreaded white chunks. 

The exact cause is unknown but there are certain factors that contribute to the formation of these deposits: dry mouth, medically know as xerostomia, caused by medications; postnasal drip due to allergies, colds, sinus infections, etc.; poor dental hygiene; or eating a diet high in refined sugars which tend to lead to increased mucus production. Tonsil stones may be related to enlarged tonsils, inflamed or infected tonsils, and bad breath.

What are the symptoms of tonsil stones?

Symptoms vary depending on location but they may include:  

  • A gritty feeling in your mouth 
  • A sensation that you have something stuck in your throat when swallowing or speaking
  • An unpleasant taste in your mouth
  • Dry cough
  • Ear pain if it is close to the eardrum
  • Sore throat
  • Halitosis, also known as bad breath, can be caused by bacteria growing inside of them and creating an odor

You might also experience trouble breathing through one nostril because the stone gets pushed against it. If there's swelling from infection, severe discomfort could occur with fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

How do you treat tonsil stones?

Tonsil stone treatment is usually a very simple procedure that can be done right in your own home and doesn't require any medication or a trip to the doctor's office. There are numerous products on the market designed with tonsil stones removal in mind, with many of them being available without a prescription at most pharmacies and grocery stores. Some popular over-the-counter solutions include peroxide gargles which will help break down the mass by releasing oxygen bubbles into it, saltwater washes for gargling and swishing around in your mouth, as well as tonics that contain enzymes that work to dissolve deposits naturally from within. You could also use an oral irrigator such as Waterpik or Hydro Floss which will help extract tonsil stones from your crypts by flushing them out with water. This is the most common and effective way to remove these obstructions as well as reducing bad breath.

There are also many other methods for treating tonsil stones that you can do at home, including gargling with hydrogen peroxide or apple cider vinegar, using a cotton swab to break up the stone into smaller pieces so they're easier to dislodge, doing saltwater washes several times throughout the day until symptoms subside, making sure not to eat anything hard like nuts or chips right before bed because it could cause uncomfortable pressure during sleep if one forms there. If you have recurrent attacks every week, then surgery might be an option.

What are the key factors to preventing tonsil stones?

There is no guaranteed way of preventing these annoying white chunks from forming but there are some simple things you can do that will help reduce your chances of experiencing them. You can prevent dry mouth with lozenges, sprays, or gels. You can gargle with a saline solution for thirty seconds after meals and before bedtime. You may want to avoid refined sugars as they contribute to increased mucus production which could lead to more inflammation around the crypts where tonsil stones form. You should also maintain good dental hygiene by brushing twice every day and flossing daily in order to keep bacteria levels down. For more severe cases you may want to go see a doctor or dentist.

Summary

Tonsil stones are calcified pieces of debris that form in the crypts, or crevices, of your tonsils. The exact cause is unknown but it occurs when debris from food mixes with saliva, mucus, and bacteria to form a calcified white chunk that is often visible on your palatine tonsils in the back of your throat although they can form on your lingual tonsils too. Tonsils stones can have no symptoms but the most common are irritation or swelling in the back of your throat, bad breath, ear pain, and an often visible white piece of debris on the tonsil that is the tonsil stone. There are a number of at-home remedies to treat tonsils stones including rinses that can break it up. In more severe cases, the tonsil stone may need to be surgically removed. To avoid tonsil stones, practice good oral hygiene to prevent bacteria buildup and use a mouthwash or gargle to prevent them from forming. Should you have any further questions, please see your healthcare provider or dentist. 

References & Sources: 

Cleveland Clinic – Tonsil Stone

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5938656/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3843407/

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