On most days, you probably don’t give too much thought to your tonsils. They hang out in the back of your throat, do their thing, and don’t draw much attention to themselves. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Your tonsils are part of your body’s immune system. They’re oval-shaped, pink lumps that sit at the back of your throat, one on either side. They don’t look like much, but they’re actually your first line of defense against viruses and bacteria that get in through your nose and mouth.
The trouble with being so close to the front lines is that your tonsils can get infected, too. That’s called tonsillitis. It’s more common in children, but adults can get it as well.
Surgery to take out your tonsils used to be much more common. But now, doctors are more likely to wait and see, using surgery only in certain cases.
Can I Take Medicine Instead?
Tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus, though bacteria can cause it as well.
If you or your child has tonsillitis because of a virus, it’s a lot like having a cold. The best you can do is try to give yourself relief from symptoms, as you would do with a sore throat or fever. Plenty of rest is a good place to start.
If bacteria are causing it, your doctor may give you antibiotics to kill them and clear up the infection.
When Would I Need Surgery?
Typically, you’d get your tonsils taken out only if tonsillitis:
- Keeps coming back
- Causes other problems, such as sleep apnea, a common disorder in which you briefly stop breathing many times a night
If the area around your tonsils gets infected and forms a pocket of pus, it’s called an abscess. These, along with tumors, are another reason to have surgery, though neither is very common.
Tonsillitis that keeps coming back: If you or your child seem to get it a lot, your doctor might talk about surgery. The number of infections that signal it’s time to have your tonsils removed is different for everybody. But your doctor may suggest it if you have tonsillitis at least:
- 7 times in 1 year
- 5 times a year for 2 years in a row
- 3 times a year for 3 years in a row
Your doctor might also suggest surgery if it’s caused by bacteria and antibiotics haven’t worked.
Your doctor may ask you to think about how much the infections affect your, or your child’s, life. For example, some parents choose to have the tonsils taken out because their child has missed so much school. Or an adult may want to consider the surgery because repeated infections are affecting their sleep.
Tonsillitis that causes other problems: Your doctor may also talk to you about surgery if the infections lead to sleep apnea.
In the short term, sleep apnea makes you tired during the day. For kids, it can even make them hyperactive. If it’s not treated, it can be serious. It may lead to obesity, heart problems, and other issues. Surgery to remove your tonsils can help.
Frequent tonsillitis makes it hard for some people to breathe or swallow. If these problems don’t improve over time, they’re another reason your doctor may bring up surgery.