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Tonsils and Adenoids: What's the Difference?

How often do you think about tonsils and adenoids? Not very much, I'll bet! For many people, the first time they learn anything about these organs is when they or their children experience issues with them. When they're functioning normally, tonsils and adenoids are hardly ever a topic of conversation. But from both an oral care and immune health perspective, the tonsils and adenoids play a crucial role in keeping your body infection-free.

When we think of a robust immune system, building healthy habits like getting quality sleep, staying hydrated, and nourishing our bodies with healthy foods come to mind. But did you know that your tonsils and adenoids are your immune system's first line of defense? Let's dive into some common questions about the difference between adenoids and tonsils, their essential functions, and their potential complications and treatments.

Tonsils & Adenoids: Location and Function

Tonsils are a pair of lymph nodes at the back of the throat. With just a light, you can view your tonsils when you open your mouth. They can appear larger in children under nine and usually shrink significantly during the teen years.

Adenoids and tonsils are part of the more extensive lymphatic system that includes lymph nodes found in the neck, armpits, and groin. This system clears away infection and keeps body fluids in balance. Tonsils and adenoids work by trapping the germs coming in through the mouth and nose to prevent them from invading the body. Because they work as mechanisms to fight infection, they can become infected and enlarged. At this point, you may be wondering, "what are the different complications for adenoids vs. tonsils, and how are they similar?"

Potential Tonsil Complications

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

Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis, an inflammation of the tonsils, is typically caused by a virus and bacterial. It can affect children from preschool-age to mid-teens. Tonsillitis is rare in adults since its immune system function declines post-puberty.

The symptoms of tonsillitis include the following;

  • Redness and swelling
  • White or yellow patches on the tonsils
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes in the neck

Your dental or medical professional can take a swab of your throat to determine the source of your inflamed tonsils. While tonsillitis is not contagious, what causes it can be. So it's essential to practice regular hygiene like frequent hand-washing.

If bacteria are 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.

Tonsilloliths

Tonsilloliths commonly referred to as tonsil stones, form when debris gets caught and builds up within the tonsillar crypts. Tonsillar crypts are the naturally occurring crevices in your tonsils. A standard component of tonsil structure, the number of crypts varies from person to person. Ideally, they should remain free of debris.

Symptoms of tonsil stones include bad breath, odorous clumps in your mouth, and throat irritation. Luckily, some people can treat tonsil stones at home. If you have many crypts in your tonsils, you may be more prone to forming stones and developing an infection. Prevention measures include good oral hygiene like regular brushing, flossing (also known as interdental cleaning), and the use of a water flosser and mouthwash. If you can't dislodge a tonsil stone at home, a dental professional can.

When to Consider a Tonsillectomy

Many tonsil issues are treated nonsurgically. However, there are several reasons that their removal will improve your quality of life!

Enlarged tonsils that cause difficulty breathing while sleeping or chronic throat infections are two main reasons to get them removed. And did you know that, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the tonsillectomy (or adenotonsillectomy) accounts for more than 15% of surgeries performed on children under 15?

You're probably wondering who helps you decide if a tonsillectomy is right for you or your child. An Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist (ENT) is the healthcare professional that will confirm you need a tonsillectomy and will be the one to operate. The procedure usually takes 20 to 30 minutes under local anesthesia. Pain and inflammation during recovery can take as long as two weeks to subside. Your child will likely miss about a week of school as they recover. Adults getting their tonsils removed may need longer to heal fully.

Potential Adenoid Complications: Enlarged Adenoids

Adenoids are small lymph tissues at the upper airway behind the throat that 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. They can start to shrink once a child surpasses age five, and by the time kids reach their teen years, their adenoids have practically disappeared.

Adenoids can become swollen when fighting off an infection. While the swelling can dissipate independently, the adenoids themselves become infected or continue to be swollen after you have recovered. A doctor might recommend a surgical solution if the swelling or infection becomes chronic.

A doctor should see your child if you think they have enlarged adenoids. Symptoms to look for include difficulty breathing via the nose or consistently breathing through the mouth, snoring, middle ear infections 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.

When to Consider an Adenoidectomy

The removal of adenoids glands is referred to as an adenoidectomy or adenoid removal. A doctor might recommend an adenoidectomy for your child if their enlarged adenoids cause breathing issues due to partial airway blockage. Sleep apnea and chronic ear infections can result from these breathing issues. Like with a tonsillectomy, an ENT doctor can perform the procedure on an out-patient basis, which includes putting the child under general anesthesia. Minor and temporary side effects from this surgery are sore throats, bad breath, and earaches.

Any time you are concerned about you or your child's oral health, it is essential to consult a dental professional. At the same time, issues involving your tonsils and adenoids may require a visit to an ENT Specialist. They can determine your best treatment for problems arising from swelling, pain, recurrent illness, or sleep issues caused by the lymph nodes in your mouth.

Tonsils and adenoids are a vital part of the immune system, but they, too, can be a source of chronic or recurring issues. You, your dentist, and your ENT Specialist can work together to help keep you or your child's oral cavity painless and infection-free.

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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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