While there are several causes of bad odor that come from the mouth, bad oral hygiene is not the only one, contrary to popular belief. You will be surprised to learn that sometimes, it is the formation of stones in our tonsils or ‘tonsilloliths’ that cause this bad breath to develop at the oddest of times. 

So, what exactly are these tonsil stones, and are they harmful to us? How can you stop them from developing in the first place? We’ll cover some answers to these questions in this article. 

What Are Tonsil Stones? 

tonsil stones

Tonsillar stones, tonsil stones, or tonsilloliths are the accumulation of microorganisms and cellular debris that has been retained for a long time. They combine and form yellow or white concrete deposits that are seen lying in the tonsillar crypts. [1]

When seen to be embedded in the tonsillar crypts for a long time, these tonsil stones give rise to halitosis or ‘bad breath’ from the mouth. Apart from forming small hard deposits at the back of your mouth – yes, you can even see them if you stand with your mouth wide open in the front of a mirror – they are indeed visible. [2]

However, the good part is that in most cases, these tonsil stones are painless and usually do not cause any harm. Tonsil stones vary in size. In some people, they appear as small as a grain of rice, whereas, in others, they may appear as large as a grape. 

It is often due to any presenting symptoms such as uncontrolled bad breath or a persistent bad taste in the mouth that could be a telltale sign of this oral issue. Other than that, in most cases, it is merely an incidental finding. [3]

A saltwater gargle or a water pick are two methods for removing tonsil stones at home. If the tonsil stones keep reappearing or are troubling you, your doctor may suggest surgery. [3]

What Causes Tonsil Stones?

tonsil stones

There are several reasons why these tonsil stones can form inside your mouth. However, the main fact is that our tonsils serve an important function and provide immunity to the body by fighting off microorganisms and other harmful agents that might enter the body and wreak havoc. [4]

While doing so, tonsils capture these offending agents, mainly bacteria, food material, debris, and other nitty-gritty that seem suspicious to them. 

Sometimes, by not taking care of our oral hygiene, we also indirectly contribute to sending some material to the tonsils’ way. This causes them to collect it within their crypts. [5]

Over time, all this accumulated material starts binding to each other – of course, where else would it go? Unfortunately, tonsils do not have any excretory system or another pathway that would help them get rid of this buildup. Therefore, when this debris and bacteria start binding, they often harden up during the process and, this way, assume their characteristic ‘stony’ nature. 

How Long Do Tonsil Stones Last?

tonsil stones

As we already learned above, in the majority of the cases, tonsil stones appear to be quite harmless. Therefore, they usually stay lying around where they are, leaving you unbothered and, sometimes, unaware of their presence. 

In most cases, these stones either dislodge themselves or dissolve after a couple of weeks, which usually happens in around 1 to 3 weeks. [6]

Similarly, they could be in your mouth for the last couple of years, and you would not even have any idea!

How to Know If You Have Tonsil Stones?

tonsil stones

To answer this question, there are several ways to diagnose the condition. 

There are some possibly presenting symptoms of tonsil stones. By understanding these symptoms, you may be able to gauge whether you have this condition or not. [7]

Generally speaking, a person suffering from tonsil stones in their mouth presents with the following features: [8]

  • The presence of visible yellow or white stones on the tonsils – patches may also be seen,  
  • Persistent halitosis (bad breath), 
  • A feeling that something is stuck in your throat, 
  • Persistent cough or sore throat, 
  • A constant, nagging feeling that you need to swallow, yet you fail to swallow or do so with increased difficulty,
  • Constant ear pain, 
  • Throat infection that fails to get resolved with antibiotics. 

Whenever you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should consult an ENT doctor. 

But yes, visualizing these tonsil stones yourself isn’t rocket science. Simply open your mouth wide and take a look in the mirror. They typically look like tiny white or yellow pebbles lodged at the back of your throat. 

Why Do I Keep Getting Tonsil Stones?

As we discussed earlier, you may have had tonsil stones for a long time but would not be aware of them. Similarly, certain people know very well about their condition. 

It could be due to the onset of symptoms that seem just to come and go with time. [9]

It is recommended that these people take good care of their oral hygiene. The accumulation of debris and food material might affect your tonsils, which ultimately leads to the development of tonsil stones. 

Is Removing Tonsil Stones A Good Idea? 

In many cases, tonsil stones do nothing but cause a nuisance or irritation for no purpose at all. Of course, people get agitated at having something literally ‘stuck’ at the back of their mouth. [10]

It has become a common practice among people to remove these for good. There are various home-based remedies you may use to get rid of tonsil stones once and for all.

Some of these remedies include:

Gargles

Gargling with salt water helps relieve the symptoms. However, it also helps the swollen tonsils shrink so that the stones may get dislodged. Vigorously gargling may even dislodge a tonsil stone if done correctly. [11]

Cotton Swab

A sterilized cotton swab may also help dislodge the tonsil stone if used carefully and precisely. [12]

Oral Irrigator

Sometimes, a water flosser or oral irrigator might be enough to do the job. Spraying gently over the affected tonsil may help dislodge it in no time. [13]

However, at home, there are certain things that you need to take care of. Not taking adequate care or just carelessly poking around your mouth can cause issues and might even damage delicate tissue in the oral cavity. 

Is It Safe To Remove Tonsil Stones On Your Own?

Tonsil stones may dislodge or disintegrate in a short period. If germs continue to develop on the tonsils due to tonsil stones down in the throat, they may remain for weeks. It may linger for years if neglected and kept in place without any lifestyle change.

Safety hazards, sterilization issues, and many other efficiency issues included, it might be a doable but not exactly a safe task to try to remove it by yourself! 

It is better to leave this task for a professional to do. And if you cannot go to one and want to get rid of these tonsil stones, then it is recommended that you take immense care and ensure appropriate lighting to perform this task.

The Bottom Line – How to Prevent Tonsil Stones? 

People with recurring tonsil stones might find them pretty annoying and a hassle to deal with, but it is a preventable condition for most people! 

It is best to avoid overindulging in sugary stuff or other foods that are prone to get stuck in the back of your mouth.  

It is also recommended that you make sure that you are flossing and taking care of your oral hygiene in the best possible way to ensure that no debris, food material, or bacteria could make it up to the tonsils to seek refuge for a long, long time. 

Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your own healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.

Dr Andleeb is a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D) graduate with real-life experience working in health and wellness-related companies. She has also published various research papers in the health and medical field. Currently, she takes joy in creating health-related content for a wide range of audiences, which is a craft she has been perfecting for over five years. She enjoys diving deep into published research papers and journal articles to source helpful content for her readers. LinkedIn