Doctor, Explain Tonsils and Adenoids
Insight into tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy
Tonsils and adenoids are masses of tissue that are similar to the lymph
nodes or "glands" found in the neck, groin, and armpits. Tonsils are the
two masses on the back of the throat. Adenoids are high in the throat
behind the nose and the roof of the mouth (soft palate) and are not
visible through the mouth without special instruments.
Tonsils and adenoids are near the entrance to the breathing passages
where they can catch incoming germs, which cause infections. They "sample"
bacteria and viruses and can become infected themselves. Scientists
believe they work as part of the body's immune system by filtering germs
that attempt to invade the body, and that they help to develop antibodies
happens primarily during the first few years of life, becoming less important as
we get older. Children who must have their tonsils and adenoids removed suffer
no loss in their resistance.
What affects tonsils and adenoids?
The most common problems affecting the tonsils and adenoids are recurrent
infections (throat or ear) and significant enlargement or obstruction that
causes breathing and swallowing problems.
Abscesses around the tonsils, chronic tonsillitis, and infections of small
pockets within the tonsils that produce foul-smelling, cheese-like formations
can also affect the tonsils and adenoids, making them sore and swollen. Tumors
are rare, but can grow on the tonsils.
When should I see my doctor?
You should see your doctor when you or your child suffer the common symptoms
of infected or enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
The primary methods used to check tonsils and adenoids are:
- Medical history
- Physical examination
- Throat cultures/Strep tests
- Blood tests
What should I expect at the exam?
Your physician will ask about problems of the ear, nose, and throat and
examine the head and neck. He or she will use a small mirror or a flexible
lighted instrument to see these areas.
Cultures/strep tests are important in diagnosing certain infections in the
throat, especially "strep" throat.
X-rays are sometimes helpful in determining the size and shape of the
adenoids. Blood tests can determine problems such as mononucleosis.
How are tonsil and adenoid diseases treated?
Bacterial infections of the tonsils,
especially those caused by streptococcus, are first treated with antibiotics.
Sometimes, removal of the tonsils and/or adenoids may be recommended. The two
primary reasons for tonsil and/or adenoid removal are (1) recurrent infection
despite antibiotic therapy and (2) difficulty breathing due to enlarged tonsils
Such obstruction to breathing causes snoring and disturbed sleep that leads
to daytime sleepiness in adults and behavioral problems in children. Some
orthodontists believe chronic mouth breathing from large tonsils and adenoids
causes malformations of the face and improper alignment of the teeth.
Chronic infection can affect other areas such as the eustachian tube - the
passage between the back of the nose and the inside of the ear. This can lead to
frequent ear infections and potential hearing loss.
Recent studies indicate adenoidectomy may be a beneficial treatment for some
children with chronic earaches accompanied by fluid in the middle ear (otitis
media with effusion).
In adults, the possibility of cancer or a tumor may be another reason for
removing the tonsils and adenoids.
In some patients, especially those with infectious mononucleosis, severe
enlargement may obstruct the airway. For those patients, treatment with steroids
(e.g., cortisone) is sometimes helpful.
Tonsillitis and its symptoms
Tonsillitis is an infection in one or both tonsils. One sign is swelling of
the tonsils. Other signs or symptoms are:
- Redder than normal tonsils
- A white or yellow coating on the tonsils
- A slight voice change due to swelling
- Sore throat
- Uncomfortable or painful swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck
- Bad breath
Enlarged adenoids and their symptoms
If you or your child's adenoids are enlarged, it may be hard to breathe
through the nose.
Other signs of constant enlargement are:
- Breathing through the mouth instead of the nose most of the time
- Nose sounds "blocked" when the person speaks
- Noisy breathing during the day
- Recurrent ear infections
- Snoring at night
- Breathing stops for a few seconds at night during snoring or loud
breathing (sleep apnea)
Talk to your child about his/her feelings and provide strong reassurance and
support throughout the process. Encourage the idea that the procedure will make
him/her healthier. Be with your child as much as possible before and after the
surgery. Tell him/her to expect a sore throat after surgery. Reassure your child
that the operation does not remove any important parts of the body, and that
he/she will not look any different afterward. If your child has a friend who has
had this surgery, it may be helpful to talk about it with that friend.
Adults and children
For at least two weeks before any surgery, the patient should refrain from
taking aspirin or other medications containing aspirin. (WARNING:
Children should never be given aspirin because of the risk of developing Reye's
- If the patient or patient's family has had any problems with anesthesia,
the surgeon should be informed. If the patient is taking any other
medications, has sickle cell anemia, has a bleeding disorder, is pregnant, has
concerns about the transfusion of blood, or has used steroids in the past
year, the surgeon should be informed.
- A blood test and possibly a urine test may be required prior to surgery.
- Generally, after midnight prior to the operation, nothing (chewing gum,
mouthwashes, throat lozenges, toothpaste, water) may be taken by mouth.
Anything in the stomach may be vomited when anesthesia is induced, and this is
When the patient arrives at the hospital or surgery center, the
anesthesiologist or nursing staff may meet with the patient and family to review
the patient's history. The patient will then be taken to the operating room and
given an anesthetic. Intravenous fluids are usually given during and after
After the operation, the patient will be taken to the recovery area. Recovery
room staff will observe the patient until discharged. Every patient is special,
and recovery times vary for each individual. Many patients are released after
2-10 hours. Others are kept overnight. Intensive care may be needed for select
Your ENT specialist will provide you with the details of pre-operative and
postoperative care and answer any questions you may have.
There are several postoperative symptoms that may arise. These include (but
are not limited to) swallowing problems, vomiting, fever, throat pain, and ear
pain. Occasionally, bleeding may occur after surgery. If the patient has any
bleeding, your surgeon should be notified immediately.
Any questions or concerns you have should be discussed openly with your
surgeon, who is there to assist you.
© 2004 AAO-HNS/AAO-HNSF
Please read our disclaimer. Any information provided on this Web site should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with Dr. Hector N. Hernandez or other healthcare professional. If you have a medical problem, contact us for diagnosis and treatment.