Have you seen a white spot on the back of your throat? Those are called tonsil stones, and no, they aren’t contagious.
Seeing an unfamiliar white mass in the back of your throat will almost certainly cause you to panic. Thankfully, tonsil stones are common (up to 10% of people will experience them in their lifetime), so you don’t really have to worry about them.
Let us walk you through how to spot a tonsil stone, when you should worry, and how to treat them at home.
What are Tonsil Stones?
Tonsil stones are the result of plaque, food, cell, and saliva buildup in your tonsils.
You might have seen these white spots on your tonsils while brushing your teeth. Or, more likely, you felt them lodged in the crevices of your tonsil (where they form). You may have even unexpectedly coughed up them up a time or two!
How To Spot a Tonsil Stone
Tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths or tonsilliths, are pebble-sized formations that are white or yellow. Despite their name, these stones can sometimes be quite soft and typically have an unpleasant smell.
Is it normal to get tonsil stones?
It’s completely normal to get tonsil stones from time to time. They aren’t an indicator of a serious health issue.
Typically, they’ll form in crevices of your palatine tonsils (the left and right “bumps” at the back of your throat). In rare cases, you can get these stones at the base of your tongue (known as the lingual tonsils).
It’s more common to have one or two small stones than it is to develop a “nest” of them. Likewise, you’re more likely to have one pebble-sized stone than you are to have a large tonsil stone.
According to one report, “the age of patients with tonsil stones ranges between 10 and 77 years with a median age of 50 years with a male to female ratio of 1:1.”
In other words, pretty much anyone can develop tonsilloliths, and gender doesn’t factor in how often you get them.
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Why You Get Tonsil Stones
The leading cause of tonsil stones is poor oral hygiene. Basically, just like you get plaque buildup on your teeth, you can get stones from the buildup of mucus, saliva, and food particles in your mouth.
If you’re someone who brushes and flosses regularly, then some other tonsil stone causes could be:
- Large tonsils
- Postnasal drip
- Consistent inflammation or repeated cases of tonsillitis
Tonsil Stones Symptoms
The first symptom of tonsil stones is bad breath. You may also simultaneously experience a sore throat or the need to cough.
You can typically see these stones lodged in the back of your throat. However, some people with tonsilloliths are asymptomatic— meaning you don’t have any symptoms at all. In these cases, your dentist or doctor likely discovered the presence of stones from a CT or equivalent medical scan (keep in mind that these are not the same stones as gallstones).
Some stones are too small to see with the naked eye. Or they may be so far embedded in the crevices of your tonsil that you won’t be able to see them (but you can probably feel them).
Just in case, here is a comprehensive list of tonsil stone symptoms:
- Bad breath (think rotten eggs)
- Sore throat
- Persistent need to cough
- The feeling of something in the back of your throat
- Visible yellow or white bumps on your tonsils
- Pain when swallowing
Tonsilloliths are an effect of your personal oral hygiene, so they aren’t contagious or transferable between two people.
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Are Tonsil Stones Painful?
Generally, tonsil stones are not painful. However, depending on the size and location of the stone, you may experience pain when swallowing.
It’s more likely that you’ll feel discomfort from the stone. The constant feeling of an object being “stuck” at the back of your mouth is more of an annoyance than anything.
If you develop stones often and have pain from it, this is a more concerning issue to bring up with your dentist.
Tonsil Stone Treatment
Treatment for tonsil stones boils down to better oral care. However, reoccurring stones, constant inflammation, or large stones may require medical attention and further action.
Again, we want to reiterate that it is rare to have stones that require anything other than at-home care. That being said, if you experience consistent inflammation, infection, pain, bleeding, or have problems swallowing, you should talk to your dentist about treatment options.
Some alternative tonsil stone treatments include:
- Gingival curettage: The use of a small handheld instrument to remove inflamed tissue. Traditionally, this procedure is used to “remove tartar buildup and is performed by a dental hygienist.”
- Laser tonsil cryptolysis: This procedure reduces the number of crevices or crypts in your tonsils. This makes it so that debris is less likely to get trapped and cause tonsil stones.
- Tonsillectomy: A surgery requiring a local anesthetic to have your tonsils removed.
How To Prevent Tonsil Stones at Home
Although this isn’t a serious health problem, these stones can be irritating and cause other issues like bad breath.
Thankfully, you don’t need to go to a dentist to get rid of them! Here are the best ways to prevent or get rid of tonsil stones at home:
- Gargle saltwater
- Maintain a good oral hygiene routine (include mouthwash in your routine)
- Quit smoking
- Drink more water
- Use a tool (the best tonsil stone removal tool options are cotton swabs, a Waterpik, or just your finger)
If these at-home remedies don’t work, talk to your dentist about the alternative treatment options listed above.