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What are tonsil stones?

Brandy asks: "What are tonsil stones?"

Tonsil stones (or tonsilloliths) are hard, white or yellow lumps that form on your tonsils. They look, as you might guess, like little pebbles. More of a nuisance than a true health risk, tonsil stones can often be treated at home.

How do they form?

Tonsil stones form when food, bacteria, minerals and other debris like dead cells and mucus get stuck in small pockets in your tonsils known as tonsillar crypts. When the debris hardens, tonsil stones are created.

Warning signs and symptoms

Your dentist may diagnose them during a routine exam, but tonsil stones may not cause noticeable symptoms for you to detect at home. If they do, those warning signs include bad breath, a sore throat or trouble swallowing, a cough, ear pain and tonsil swelling.

You may also be able to tell if you have tonsil stones when you cough. Coughing can dislodge them and you may be able to spit them out. They’ll look like a small, whitish lump and usually smell quite bad, which is what causes bad breath when you have them. You can throw them away.

Preventing tonsil stones

Because the main cause of tonsil stones is the buildup of debris in your mouth, the best way to prevent tonsil stones is to consistently maintain clean teeth and gums.

  • Brush twice each day with fluoride toothpaste, floss and visit your dentist for preventive care.
  • Gargling after meals can remove any further food buildup.

How to remove tonsil stones

If you have tonsil stones, consult your physician. They will assess the severity of your stones and provide treatment options, including:

  • At-home removal. In most cases, tonsil stones may fall out themselves and be swallowed. For stones causing you distress, you can try gargling warm, salty water to dislodge them.
  • Antibiotics. Your physician will prescribe these if necessary.
  • Surgery. In rare cases, tonsil stones may require surgery. Your physician can refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who will help you navigate your options.