Tonsils and Adenoids: What's the Difference?

Say the words "immune system" and fighting off a pesky cold is probably the first thing that comes to mind for many people. You've heard all the standard advice, too: drink lots of fluids, get your sleep, and don't forget that vitamin C. But do you really know how your immune system works? From an oral care perspective, both the tonsils and adenoids play a key role in keeping you healthy.

Tonsils & Adenoids: Location and Function

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, the tonsils, visible as two round lumps (also referred to as lymph nodes), are located at the back of the throat. Adenoids are glands found in the high part of the throat behind the nose and soft palate (roof of the mouth). They aren't visible to the naked eye through the mouth or nose. Tonsils and adenoids are like the lymph nodes found in the neck, armpits and groin.

Bacteria enter the body through the mouth and the nose, where they encounter tonsils and adenoids, the immune system's first line of defense. Because these two features fight infection, they can both become infected and enlarged.


The Mayo Clinic defines tonsillitis as an inflammation of the tonsils that is typically caused by a virus, but can also be bacterial in nature. It can affect children from preschool-age to the mid-teens. Tonsillitis is rare in adults since its immune system function declines post-puberty. The symptoms are numerous and include redness and swelling, white or yellow patches on the tonsils, fever, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and swollen or tender lymph nodes in the neck.


If you have difficulty breathing while sleeping due to enlarged tonsils or if they cause you chronic throat infections, a tonsillectomy might be in order, explains the Cleveland Clinic. Performed under general anesthesia, the procedure usually takes a mere 20 to 30 minutes. Pain and inflammation during recovery can take as long as two weeks to subside.

Enlarged Adenoids

As adenoids trap germs that have entered the body, they sometimes swell while fighting off an infection, reports The Nemours Foundation. The swelling can dissipate on its own, but sometimes the adenoids themselves become infected. A doctor might recommend a surgical solution if the infection becomes chronic.

Adenoids excel at fighting infections in babies and young children. As children age, their bodies develop other methods to combat germs, reducing the importance of adenoids. Adenoids can start to shrink once a child surpasses 5 years old. By the time kids reach their teen years, they practically disappear.

Children with enlarged adenoids should be seen by a doctor. Symptoms include difficulty breathing via the nose or consistently breathing through the mouth, snoring, middle ear infections and/or fluid in the ears in school-aged children, or frequent sinus issues. While not always the case, tonsils and adenoids can become enlarged at the same time.


The Cleveland Clinic writes that the removal of the adenoid glands is referred to as an adenoidectomy. A doctor might recommend an adenoidectomy for your child if their enlarged adenoids are causing breathing issues due to a partial airway blockage. Sleep apnea and chronic ear infections can result from these breathing issues, including enlarged tonsils.

An ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor can perform the procedure on an out-patient basis, which will still include putting the child under general anesthesia. A temporary sore throat, bad breath and earaches are side effects of this surgery.

Any time you have concerns about your or your child's oral health, schedule a consultation with your dentist. Issues involving your tonsils and adenoids may require a visit to an ENT specialist.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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