onsil stones typically don’t pose serious health risks, but they can be irksome to deal with. They can cause bad breath, an unpleasant sensation as if there’s something lodged in the back of your throat, or trouble swallowing. So, if you notice tonsil stones (also called tonsilloliths or tonsilliths) on your tonsils, you likely will want to get rid of these pale-yellow bumps.
Here are some options you can discuss with your doctor, including some common remedies you can try at home.
Sometimes Home Remedies Can Get Rid of Tonsil Stones — but Avoid These Missteps
Sometimes no treatment is recommended for tonsil stones. Because they are not harmful, doctors may recommend leaving them alone if you do not experience or are not bothered by the symptoms associated with tonsil stones. (1)
If they do bother you, some at-home remedies may help you deal with them.
Pushing or Squeezing Out Stones
Many people try to physically remove these stones on their own by pushing or squeezing out these growths with something like a cotton swab, the back of a toothbrush, or even their finger.
It can work, but putting pressure on the tonsils can trigger the gag reflex in some people, says Aaron Thatcher, MD, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. If you do decide to remove the stones yourself, be sure to push the dislodged stones forward, toward the opening of your mouth and away from your throat. (1,2)
If you do try to remove a stone yourself, do not use a sharp object (such as a pen, pencil, toothpick, knife, or safety pin) to do so, says Jennifer Setlur, MD, an otolaryngologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, in Boston. “There is risk for injury to the tonsil and bleeding,” says Dr. Setlur. “There is a risk for vascular injury.”
Using a Water Flosser
One of the best methods recommended by doctors for dislodging tonsil stones is doing so with a water flosser. It’s a great way to remove them without gagging, and it doesn’t involve any sharp implements. “It’s the safest noncontact method,” says Setlur. (2)
Yes, Sometimes Tonsil Stones Do Go Away on Their Own
In some cases, tonsil stones can go away on their own, says Setlur. “Your tonsils can change, becoming more cryptic [meaning they develop more crevices and pits] in the late teens and early twenties, and shrinking as we get older.”
Your Doctor May Be Able to Help Remove Tonsil Stones, or Decide if Surgery Is Needed
There are no medications you can take to get rid of tonsil stones, and surgical procedures (like a tonsillectomy) are usually not needed, unless a patient’s quality of life is affected by the tonsil stones, Dr. Thatcher says. (1,2)
But, if none of the above home remedies work for you or you have tonsil stones that are too large or too deeply embedded in the tonsils for you to remove them yourself, you may want to consider seeing an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor), Setlur says. “Most dentists or general practitioners may not want to manipulate this area and may recommend an ENT or oral surgeon.”
But your doctor can help you decide if more serious treatment is needed.
RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Preventing Tonsil Stones
If your tonsil stones are on the severe end of the spectrum — if you’re constantly working to remove tonsil stones that persistently grow back or you’re coughing up tonsil stones every couple of days, for instance — you may want to talk to your doctor about surgical options, says Thatcher.
RELATED: What Causes Tonsil Stones in the First Place
You should also see your doctor right away if you spot any of these symptoms, which could be signs that you have an infection or another more serious medical problem (according to a paper published in April 2018 in the Saudi Medical Journal and other sources): (1,2,3)
- Tonsils that are enlarged or look very red
- Any asymmetry in the tonsils (if one side is bigger or looks different from the other or if you are experiencing more pain on one side)
- Trouble swallowing
- Persistent sore throat
- Bleeding in the tonsils
- Pus coming from the tonsils
- Pain (including ear pain)
- Enlarged tonsilliths that interfere with breathing
There Are a Few Surgical Options to Get Rid of Tonsil Stones, but They’re Usually Only Recommended for Very Severe Cases
If your doctor does recommend a medical procedure to get rid of (and help prevent future) tonsil stones, here are some of the options he or she may discuss.
A tonsillectomy is the complete removal of the tonsils. Like any surgical procedure, there are risks of complications such as bleeding and infection. It’s also a painful procedure that can involve two or more weeks of moderate to severe pain, says Thatcher.
The tonsils also play an important role in keeping harmful bacteria and viruses out of your body by acting as sentinels and preventing them from entering through your mouth, and should only be removed when absolutely necessary. (1,2,3) “They are part of the immune system,” says Setlur.
The bottom line: Your doctor may recommend this surgery if the tonsil stones are severely affecting your quality of life, and other methods to keep your tonsil stones in check are not working. (1,2) “It’s a high-risk solution for a low-risk problem,” Setlur adds.
Laser Tonsil Cryptolysis
In this surgery, a surgeon uses a laser to remove the tonsil crypts by resurfacing those areas (but not removing the full tonsils). A review published in 2013 in the American Journal of Otolaryngology of 500 cases involving this procedure found that the advantages of this surgery over tonsillectomy included no need for general anesthesia (a lower, local dose is all that is required), not having to remove the tonsils, enabling doctors to target only the areas where cryptic pockets are, reduced risk of bleeding, less pain after surgery, and shorter recovery time.
Coblation Tonsil Cryptolysis
For this procedure doctors use radio-frequency energy and salt water to remove the crypts and crevices in the tonsils where tonsil stones have formed. It has all the aforementioned advantages of laser tonsil cryptolysis over tonsillectomy. Additionally, it allows the doctor to operate at a lower temperature than a laser requires, so there are fewer risks than with the laser procedure (such as potential airway fire, retinal damage, and facial burns).