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How Your Palatine Tonsil Helps Guard Your Mouth

Each person is born with structures in the back of their mouth called palatine tonsils. More frequently, these masses of tissue as simply referred to as tonsils. Your dentist and doctor can examine your palatine tonsils when they ask you to open your mouth and say "aah," and they can determine their health based on size and appearance.

What Are the Tonsils?

Palatine tonsil function is an important part of our immune system. As described by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, the tonsils use their supply of white blood cells to help fight viruses and bacteria in the body. We actually have three different types of tonsils — the palatine tonsils, the adenoids and the lingual tonsil — and they're all located in a circle-like formation around the nose and throat region. Together, they prevent germs from invading the body.

The palatine tonsils are specifically found in the folds at the back of our mouth called the palatoglossal and palatopharyngeal arches, as summarized on Radiopaedia. The tonsils receive blood from the facial artery, ascending pharyngeal artery and lingual artery, and they receive nerve input from the ninth cranial nerve, also called the glossopharyngeal nerve.

What Do They Look Like?

Your dentist and doctor can view your palatine tonsils readily with just a light once you open your mouth. Palatine tonsils are typically the size of grapes or smaller, according to Johns Hopkins Children's Center. They can appear larger in children under the age of 9 and usually shrink significantly during the teen years, as described by Stanford Children's Health.

Tonsil surfaces are covered in grooves and crevices, which often stay clean but may occasionally trap debris and bacteria, as described by the Mayo Clinic. Good oral hygiene is key to keeping your tonsils and the rest of your oral cavity clean.

Common Palatine Tonsil Problems

Many people encounter a tonsil issue at some point in their life. The palatine tonsils are susceptible to a few conditions, especially in school-aged children who come into frequent contact with germs.

  • Tonsillitis: Tonsillitis is the clinical term for inflamed tonsils. This can be caused by either bacteria or a virus, according to the National Institutes of Health. Your dental or medical professional can take a swab of your throat to determine the source of your inflamed tonsils. While the condition is not contagious, the bacteria and viruses that cause tonsillitis can spread, making frequent hand-washing essential. If bacteria is the cause, such as the strep bacteria involved in strep throat, antibiotics may help treat the swelling. Otherwise, rest and adequate hydration can help you recover. Tonsillitis is most common in children between the ages of 5 and 15, but adults can also get inflamed tonsils.
  • Tonsil Stones: Tonsil stones can form in the throat when debris gets stuck in the grooves of the tonsils. Often, these stones can be removed easily at home or by a dental professional. They can also be prevented with good oral hygiene, brushing, flossing and use of a water irrigator, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When to Consider Tonsil Removal

Many tonsil issues can be treated nonsurgically. However, if the tonsils continue to be a problem or impact breathing and swallowing, your physician may suggest removing the tonsils in a procedure called a tonsillectomy. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, tonsillectomies account for more than 15 percent of surgeries performed on children under the age of 15. Nowadays, they are primarily performed for obstructive sleep problems rather than as treatment for recurrent infection.

Tonsils are an important part of our immune system, but they, too, can be a source of chronic or recurring issues. You, your dentist and your doctor can work together to help keep your oral cavity healthy — even if that sometimes means taking the palatine tonsils out.

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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