Even if you’ve never heard of tonsil stones, it’s not unlikely that you’ve had them before without knowing it or that you even have them at this very moment. It’s true, tonsil stones are extremely common. How do you get tonsil stones? What is a tonsil stone? Anyone with tonsils can get tonsil stones. Simply put, a tonsil stone is a build up of debris that gets lodged in the tonsil and becomes hard. Some experts say they are “kind of like acne of the tonsils.” (1)
Tonsil stones are typically harmless, but they can sometimes cause discomfort. They can also cause some really unwanted symptoms like bad breath. At least one scientific study has revealed that these stones are actually quite similar to the dental plaque responsible for cavities and gum disease. (2) Left to their own devices, tonsil stone can continue to grow larger and are a haven for bacteria. So, while tonsil stones may not be dangerous, they’re not desirable either. Sometimes, they can be a sign of poor oral hygiene.
If you’ve ever knowingly had a tonsil stone, you may also already know that tonsil stones smell unpleasant — sometimes outright disgusting! You can thank their sulphur content for that gross aroma. I just mentioned bad oral hygiene — do you brush and floss regularly and are wondering “why do I get tonsil stones?” I’m about to tell you what causes these odd little oral formations. I also want to tell you how to prevent tonsil stones in the first place and how to remove tonsil stones safely using natural methods.
What are Tonsil Stones?
First off, do you know what and where your tonsils are? In the back of your throat are two small masses of soft tissue that are a part of the infection-fighting lymphatic system. These gland-like structures are your tonsils. They contain lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that ward off and fight infections in your body. Your tonsils are a first line defense of the immune system since everything that goes into your mouth must pass by them before entering your body. The tonsils can actually catch and trap invading particles like bacteria when they pass through your throat. (3)
Now what are tonsil stones exactly? Tonsil stones — also called tonsilloliths, tonsil calculi or tonsillar crypts — occur when bacteria and debris gather in the tonsils and harden forming calcified lumps. Food, dead cells, bacteria, mucus and other debris can collect in the grooves or crypts on the surface of your tonsils. When this various material gets stuck on your tonsils, your body’s infection-fighting white blood cells go to work trying to get rid of what doesn’t belong. When the white blood cells finish their job, they leave behind calcified bits on the tonsils. Usually, and unknowingly, these get swallowed. But, if these calcified particles get stuck in the tonsils, then they continue to grow and bacteria will feed on them. These are tonsil stones. They are hard, white or yellowish formations on the tonsil. They can be visible to the naked eye. (4)
If you’ve ever had a tonsil stone, then you’re probably familiar with what a foul odor can come from such a small formation. The various contents of the tonsil stone provide a feeding ground for bacteria, which creates the unpleasant scent of tonsil stones. In most cases, a tonsil stone won’t be any larger than the eraser of a pencil, but there have been reports of tonsil stones over an inch wide! (5)
Signs & Symptoms
Tonsil stone symptoms can be nonexistent if your tonsil stones are very small. However, if they are larger, then symptoms are more likely.
Symptoms of tonsil stones can include: (6)
- White or yellow flecks at the back of your throat: If you look in the mirror and see a white or yellow lump in on your tonsil, then you likely have a tonsil stone. However, sometimes the folds of the tonsil will block a stone from your sight.
- Bad breath: Tonsil stones smell bad, which can lead to one of the tell-tale signs of tonsil stones — bad breath. A study of people with chronic tonsil stones found that 75 percent of them had abnormally high concentrations of volatile sulphur compounds in their breath also had tonsil stones. Those sulfur compounds are what are responsible for bad breath as well as the nasty scent of tonsil stones.
- Sore throat: Sometimes a tonsil stone can cause pain and discomfort in the throat.
- Trouble swallowing: If the stone is large enough, it could get in the way of normal swallowing of food and drink.
- Tonsil swelling: Tonsil stones are a breeding ground for sulphur-producing bacteria (hence, the previous symptom of bad breath) and can sometimes cause the tonsils to become inflamed.
- Ear pain: Your tonsil stone may be far from making contact with your ear, but sometimes people with tonsil stones experience ear pain due to shared nerve channels.
Causes & Risk Factors
So now you know what they are, but do you know what causes tonsil stones?
Possible causes of tonsil stones include: (7)
- Poor dental hygiene
- Chronic sinus issues
- Having large tonsils
So are you at risk? As long as you have tonsils then you have some risk of developing these little masses known as tonsil stones because they can happen to anyone, even when you have no other illness or health issue present. However, tonsil stones are more likely in people who have chronic tonsil inflammation and/or repeated cases of tonsillitis. (8)
Conventional tonsil stone treatment typically depends on the size and symptoms of the tonsil stones. If there are no unwanted symptoms, medical treatment is not a requirement.
Some doctors may prescribe antibiotics, but this does not get to the root of the tonsil stones and antibiotic usage comes with side effects. Surgical removal may also be suggested if your tonsil stones are extremely large and cause symptoms. Sometimes surgical removal can be done with a local numbing agent rather than general anesthesia. (9)
Laser resurfacing is another conventional option. Laser cryptolysis entails reshaping the tonsils in order to reduce the number of crypts in which tonsil stones can grow. Another conventional option is coblation cryptolysis. Radio waves transform a salt solution into charged ions that cut through tissue. Like laser cryptolysis, it decreases the crevices (crypts) in the tonsils, but without the burning feeling of the laser. (10)
None of these conventional methods of tonsil stone removal guarantee that the tonsil stones won’t return again. Even a tonsillectomy (the complete surgical removal of tonsils) does not completely guarantee a stone-free future because it is possible for the tonsils to grow back. (11) Plus, a tonsillectomy is typically only recommended in the the most chronic and severe cases of tonsil stones where every other treatment has been tried without success.
9 Natural Treatments and Prevention for Tonsil Stones
When it comes to how to get rid of tonsil stones naturally, there are a lot of great, easy ways to remove them from your mouth at home.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar, aka ACV, is a natural remedy for such a wide variety of ailments. Now you can add tonsil stones to the list! For natural tonsil stone removal, simply add one tablespoon of ACV to eight ounces of warm water. Gargle one to three times daily. The ACV can help to break down the stones. The act of gargling can help to dislodge the stones from their unapproved resting place(s). (12)
Chewing on some raw garlic can help to kill the bacteria within a tonsil stone. This will help to discourage its growth and decrease unwanted symptoms, like bad breath. Recent research from University of Copenhagen confirms that garlic can effectively kill off the “hardiest bacterial strains.” If you have a tonsil stone, consuming a clove of garlic daily will help to kill off that foul odor-producing bacteria of a tonsil stone. (9) Let sliced or crushed raw garlic sit for 10 minutes before consuming it to increase its allicin content. Allicin is one of the active components of garlic that possesses powerful antimicrobial abilities. (13)
3. Cotton Swab
A good old cotton swab is an easy and inexpensive tonsil stone removal tool, but just be very careful. Wet the cotton swab and then use it to gently loosen the tonsil stone by lightly pressing on the tissue directly around it. Make sure to position the cotton swab behind the stones as much as possible so that when the stone pops out (hopefully!), it goes toward the front of the mouth rather than into the throat where it can accidentally be swallowed. Once the tonsil stone pops, spit it out and gargle with salt water to make sure you get rid of any remains of the stone. If the stone does not come out easily, don’t push too much, or generally be too aggressive, because you will only irritate your delicate tonsil tissue. (14)
4. Be Patient and Cough
If you’re looking to get rid of tonsil stones, much of the time all you need to do is wait, especially when they aren’t symptomatic. Very often, it takes coughing up tonsil stones to even know that you had them in the first place! If you cough up a tonsil stone, spit it out and gargle to cleanse your mouth of any residual bacteria. Also, if you know you have a tonsil stone, “energetic” (but not too aggressive) coughing can help to loosen up a stuck tonsil stone. (15)
5. Good Oral Hygiene
If you want to prevent tonsil stones, consistent good oral hygiene is key. Since tonsil stones can form from undigested food particles and other debris, it’s absolutely essential to keep your mouth thoroughly clean by brushing and flossing regularly (ideally, after every meal). If you make sure to not leave any food remnants in your mouth, then this decreases available material for tonsil stone formation. (16)
6. Oil Pulling
Commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, oil pulling is a fantastic oral detoxification method. It’s simply done by swishing a tablespoon of oil (typically coconut oil, olive or sesame oil) in your mouth for 10 to 20 minutes and spitting it out. Oil pulling is an awesome natural way to fight against cavities and gum disease. It makes perfect sense that it would be a great natural remedy for tonsil stones, too. A daily swishing with coconut oil can help to loosen tonsil stones and also to get rid of bacteria from your mouth. (17)
7. Salt Water
Gargling with salt water regularly is one of the best ways to prevent tonsil stones. It’s also one of the best ways to get rid of them. Simply, combine a half teaspoon of salt with eight ounces of warm water and gargle daily, or even a few times each day. By gargling with salt water, you help to detoxify your mouth and get rid of any stray debris that could end up forming a tonsil stone. By gargling vigorously, it also helps to loosen any tonsil stones stuck in your tonsils. (18)
8. Stay Hydrated
Part of tonsil stone prevention and removal definitely includes keeping yourself well hydrated. Make sure to consume enough water each and every day. A dry mouth with too little saliva production makes it easier for bacteria to flourish in your mouth. This only encourages the formation and enlargement of tonsil stones. Saliva actually helps to prevent infections by keeping fungi and bacteria in your mouth under control. (19)
Tonsil stones typically don’t lead to any serious health complications. But, on occasion, they can grow so large that they cause your tonsils to swell. (20)
You should seek medical advice if you: (21)
- Have swollen, red, or painful tonsils.
- Remove a tonsil stone at home and you experience pain following the removal.
- Experience tonsil stone symptoms, but can’t see any stones.
- Can’t remove the stone fully or at all and you are having unwanted symptoms of a tonsil stone.
If you are currently taking medication or have any ongoing health issues, talk to your doctor before consuming any new foods or supplements.
Tonsil stones are usually just small and smell gross, yet are not worrisome. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t want them gone as soon as possible! Now you have a variety of natural methods you can use to prevent and treat tonsil stones that are easy to do at home, are very inexpensive. Yet, they can be highly effective. Just remember that you should always be careful with attempting to physically dislodge any tonsil stones because your tonsils are very sensitive. If you’re feeling unsure about this method, you now have plenty of others at your finger tips.
Tonsil stones are one of those health phenomenons that are extremely common, but not often talked about in common conversation.