Can an Adult Need a Tonsillectomy?

Children who have sore throats often or who snore might have their tonsils taken out. But tonsillectomies aren't just for kids. Adults can need them, too.

It's done the same way in children and adults, but an adult's risks and recovery can be different.

Why Would An Adult Need a Tonsillectomy?

Your tonsils are two clumps of tissue that sit in the back of your upper throat. They're a part of your immune system that traps germs that get into your body through your mouth or nose.

They can be swollen or become infected. If you've ever had strep throat, you likely had an infection in your tonsils. Getting infections often can cause breathing problems or sore throats that don't go away.

Chronic throat infection is the most common reason adults have their tonsils out. Adults who have the surgery typically have had several sore throats over the past 1 to 3 years or have had a sore throat and swollen tonsils caused by infection for at least 3 months. Your sore throat might get better with antibiotics, but it comes back as soon as you're done with the treatment.

Other reasons you might have your tonsils removed as an adult include:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (if a blockage of your upper airway is caused by swollen tonsils)
  • Bad breath, or halitosis, that doesn't go away (if caused by a collection of pus and debris in your tonsil area)
  • Cancer (spread from your head or neck area)

Men are more likely to have their tonsils removed than women.

How Is Surgery Done?

The procedure takes about 30 to 45 minutes. You'll be given general anesthesia, so you'll be asleep and pain-free during the surgery. The surgeon will use a small knife called a scalpel to gently remove your tonsils.

You may also have your adenoids taken out at the same time. They're also part of your immune system, and they sit close to your tonsils, up behind your nose and the roof of your mouth. This part of the surgery is called an adenoidectomy.

After surgery, your health care team will watch vital signs such as heart rate and breathing and check to make sure nothing goes wrong. If you're doing well after a few hours, you'll likely be sent home to recover. But if you have a lot of bleeding from the wound, severe vomiting, trouble breathing, or other complication, you'll probably stay in the hospital overnight.

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Risks and Complications in Adults

A tonsillectomy is considered a safe procedure for adults. However, all surgery comes with risks. A 2014 report found that 1 in 5 adults who had their tonsils taken out had some kind of problem afterward. These included:

You're a lot more likely to have one of these issues if you have:

  • A history of pus collecting on your tonsils (peritonsillar abscess)
  • Another health problem
  • Used antibiotics often in the past year

 

What Can I Expect During Recovery?

Kids tend to recover much faster after tonsil surgery than adults. They only need a week to heal, while adults need about two. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Children typically heal faster than adults.
  • Children are less likely to have bleeding problems after their tonsils are removed.
  • Adults tend to have more pain after surgery. This may be because adults try to do too much too soon after surgery. They may not follow the rest and recovery instructions as a parent would make a child.

These tips can help you feel your best while you recover:

  • Take your pain medication as your doctor prescribed. The pain will be worse immediately after surgery -- it should start to go away after the first week. Call your doctor if your pain gets worse instead of better.
  • Suck on ice cubes to help with throat pain.
  • Drink plenty of water, apple juice, and other clear fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Drink smoothies or eat soft foods to make sure you get enough nutrition.

Watch for signs of infection. Your doctor will discuss these with you, but you should call him if you have any trouble breathing, bleeding, pain that gets worse, signs of dehydration (you don't have to pee often), or a fever over 102 F.

Will My Tonsil Problem Return?

Most adults who have their tonsils taken out because of chronic infection say they:

  • Have fewer sore throats
  • Don't have to use antibiotics as often
  • Miss fewer days at work
  • Have fewer doctor's visits
  • Have better general health

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on December 16, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery: "Tonsillectomy and Adenoids PostOp," "Tonsillitis."

CMAJ: "Short-term outcomes of tonsillectomy in adult patients with recurrent pharyngitis: a randomized controlled trial."

Cochrane: "Surgical removal of the tonsils (tonsillectomy) for chronic or recurrent acute tonsillitis."

Johns Hopkins Children's Center: "Tonsillectomy and Adenoidectomy."

News release, JAMA.

Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: "Adult tonsillectomy: current indications and outcomes,"  "Prevalence of complications from adult tonsillectomy and impact on health care expenditures."

Specialty Surgical Center: "Adult Vs. Pediatric Tonsillectomy."

UpToDate: "Tonsillectomy in adults: Indications."

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