What are Tonsil Stones and What Causes Them?

So you want to know what are tonsil stones, what causes them and how to prevent tonsil stones?
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know!

Do you ever feel a lump in your throat or have the sensation that something is stuck there? Have you ever noticed pale lumps stuck to your tonsils or coughed-up smelly yellow chunks? Do you struggle with chronic bad breath or a metallic taste in your mouth? 

It’s possible that you have tonsil stones. 

What are tonsil stones, what causes tonsil stones, and how to get rid of them?

This comprehensive guide explains everything you need to know about tonsil stones and what causes them. 

what are tonsil stones

What are tonsil stones? 

Tonsil stones are soft balls of debris that collect around the folds of tonsils. They can vary in color from pale yellow to gray or brown and are usually less than a centimeter in size. There have been records of large tonsil stones, however.

tonsil stone with a ruler

Tonsil stones are made up of: 

  • Bacteria 
  • Food debris 
  • Minerals 
  • Mucus 
  • Saliva 
  • Dead cells 

All of these materials coagulate into soft lumps that form over time in the crypts, or pits, of the tonsils. The fact that there are bacteria in tonsil stones classifies them as a living “biofilm” and it’s the sulfur-producing bacteria that give tonsil stones their signature bad odor. 

Signs of Tonsil Stones 

As mentioned above, there are several signs that can indicate you have tonsil stones. Here are some of the tonsil stones symptoms

  • Bad breath and/or a bad taste in your mouth (like mothballs)/ Tonsil stones cause bad breath.
  • Tonsil stones cause pain such as toothache and ear pain.
  • Discomfort swallowing 
  • The feeling of getting food stuck in your tonsils 
  • Sore tonsils 
  • A persistent need to cough to clear your throat because you feel there’s something stuck in there 
  • Coughing up smelly yellow chunks 
  • Seeing pale flecks (small stones) stuck to your tonsils when you stick your tongue out and examine your throat in a mirror 
tonsil stone clue

If you aren’t sure whether or not you have tonsil stones, visit a dentist, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist, or your regular doctor to find out. 

What Causes Tonsil Stones?  

What are some of the tonsil stones causes and their treatment? The size and shape of your tonsils are the biggest contributing factors to the development of tonsil stones. In fact, the primary requirement for tonsil stones to form is simply having tonsils in the first place.

Your tonsils are small oval pads of lymphoid tissue located at the sides of your throat just behind your tongue. Tonsils play an important role in your immune system by fighting disease and protecting your body from invading pathogens. These patches of spongy tissue are usually covered with pits and folds that quickly collect bits of the debris that passes through your throat. When the debris mixes with minerals in your saliva, it can harden into lumps on your tonsils. 

People with many deep pits on their tonsils may be more susceptible to getting tonsil stones. Likewise, those with poor oral hygiene and lots of plaque on their teeth may be prone to developing tonsil stones because they have more debris in their mouths. 

Medical Tonsils

Who Can Get Tonsil Stones? 

Just about anyone with tonsils can get stones.  

More people are struggling with tonsil stones these days because more people have their tonsils. Just a few decades ago, tonsillectomy was the oft-recommended treatment for just about any upper respiratory concern.

Now that doctors know it’s not needed as often as previously thought, more people have been growing up with their tonsils in-tact. Having no tonsils means not developing tonsil stones. But tonsil tissue is prone to packing debris in those tight spaces, so having tonsils does predispose you to getting tonsil stones.  

Some people who get tonsil stones only get them on one side of their throat. Some individuals are more disposed to tonsil stones if they already suffer from frequent cases of tonsillitis since illness means the tonsils get overloaded with cellular debris.

Just how common are tonsil stones? 

More common than you may realize! One study evaluated 124 patients who visited the radiology clinic at the University of Iowa and determined that 8.14% of the patients had tonsil stones, also called tonsilloliths.

This study only examined a little over 100 people. There’s a good possibility that the number of people who have tonsil stones is closer to one in ten, or even more. 

Why don’t you hear about tonsil stones more often?  

Not everyone who has tonsil stones realizes that they do. Or they might be embarrassed to discuss the problem. Some might even be so used to having tonsil stones that they think they’re normal. Additionally, some doctors and dentists may not correctly explain the problem to patients who ask about tonsil stones. Whatever the case, tonsil stones represent a very real health problem that is more common than you might think.  

Tonsil stones are generally harmless. They often pop out on their own and you may cough them up or unwittingly swallow them. There’s no need to panic if you do – they won’t make you sick! 

Even so, there are some complications of tonsil stones that you should know about.

Tonsil Stones Stinks

Tonsil Stone Complications  

Unless it grows to an unusually large size, a tonsil stone doesn’t pose a threat to your health. Tonsil stones have only gotten dangerously big in a few rare cases. If you find that a tonsil stone interferes with your breathing or eating, then you will need urgent medical attention. 

Otherwise, the biggest complaint with tonsil stones is the way they cause smelly breath. This is because tonsil stones are loaded with sulfur-producing bacteria and rest right there at the gateway of your throat. Each breath you exhale picks up the odor of this “living biofilm.” 

One study compared a group of people with normal breath with a group who had bad breath. While only 6% of those with the normal breath presented with tonsil stones, 75% of the study subjects with bad breath had tonsil stones. The findings suggested that tonsil stones increase your risk of having bad breath by ten times.

Graphic Bad Breath Tonsil Stones

On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about “catching” tonsil stones from anyone. They are not contagious. They develop as a result of the unique anatomy and bacterial ecosystem of an individual’s tonsils. Your biggest concern about tonsil stones is most likely their offensive odor, which can have some embarrassing social consequences. 

Can You Prevent Tonsil Stones? 

Tonsil stones might not be dangerous, but they’re still not pleasant to have. 

How do doctors treat tonsil stones? Stones are not tightly attached to your tonsils, so they are easy to remove as long as you use the right tools. Unfortunately, new tonsil stones can begin developing soon after you remove the old ones. This means that if you are prone to developing tonsil stones, you may always struggle with this smelly problem. 

How can you prevent tonsil stones or how to treat tonsil stones? 

The only factor you have control over in the tonsil stone formation process is your hygiene. You can limit the amount of debris in your mouth that would otherwise end up turning into tonsil stones.  

Good oral hygiene is an important way you can prevent tonsil stones. Brushing and flossing will reduce plaque bacteria on your teeth and gums. Scraping your tongue eliminates odor-causing bacteria. Flushing your tonsils regularly with water and gargling with mouthwash can blast away the debris that precipitates tonsil stone formation. 

Prevent Tonsil Stones

Would you like to learn more about preventing tonsil stones?

Oravix can help. Our team has developed a set of quality tonsil care tools and instructions for how to clean your tonsils that will help you avoid bad breath and other unwelcome side-effects of tonsil stones.