Tonsil stones, clinically called tonsilloliths, are small, white discharges that form in the crevices of the tonsils. They are typically found on the surfaces of the pharyngeal tonsils on either side at the back of the throat. They can be as small as a grain of rice or as large as a pea. They are quite common and usually harmless, but they may spark alarm in patients when noticed for the first time.
Tonsils themselves look a little like small heads of broccoli, with many small cracks leading into the body of the tonsil. Tonsilloliths occur from the breakdown of germs and saliva deep in these fissures. They can be soft and "cheesy" in consistency, but when they pick up mineral elements from your saliva and the foods that you eat, they can become hard and stone-like.
Tonsilloliths are usually secreted unnoticed from the tonsil tissues, producing few (if any) symptoms. It's a bit like your tonsils attempting to do some house cleaning! When present, the symptoms are generally mild, but may include bad breath and slight swelling of the affected tonsil. Occasionally, tonsil stones get stuck in the crevices of the tonsils. This may lead to more severe symptoms, such as persistent sore throat, infection or difficulty swallowing. In these instances, you should consult your dentist or family physician to rule out the possibility of a more serious problem.
Typically, tonsilloliths are secreted and eliminated on their own without the need for treatment. When asymptomatic and accessible by a dental or medical professional, they can sometimes be removed without the need for anaesthesia. Practising good daily oral hygiene and using warm salt water rinses when needed should help prevent the accumulation of tonsil stones and minimise any symptoms. It is important to note, however, that you may not always be able to prevent their occurrence.
If the stones become a recurring problem associated with a frequent sore throat, swelling and difficulty swallowing or breathing, your physician may recommend removing the tonsils – a procedure commonly known as tonsillectomy. Always consult your dentist or medical professional if you're concerned about your oral health.