Tonsils are the two fleshy like tissues in the back of the mouth, one on each side. Part of the immune system, tonsils work to trap the bacteria and viruses that we breathe in. Antibodies produced by cells in the tonsils kill these germs which helps prevent infections.
Though this is a valuable function intended to protect our health, for some, tonsils can be the source of infection. The partial or complete removal of the tonsils is known as a tonsillectomy, a surgical option to treat recurring infection. Though tonsillectomies are more commonly performed on children and teenagers, it is an option for adults who chronically experience tonsillitis.
Tonsillitis & Tonsillectomies
Tonsillitis is the inflammation and infection of the tonsils caused by viral or bacterial infection. This produces a range of symptoms including:
– Severe throat pain and/or sore throat
– Red, swollen tonsils
– Difficulty swallowing
– Fever, headache
– Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Typically, if a common virus is the cause, people are expected to naturally recover within two weeks. If the cause is a bacterial infection, doctors prescribe antibiotics for treatment. But for chronic tonsillitis, a tonsillectomy may be the most suitable option. There are differing frequency rates that define chronic tonsillitis but generally, it refers to infection that happens several times in one year. Tonsillectomies may also be an effective treatment for people who:
– do not respond well to antibiotics
– have taken antibiotics numerous times
– symptoms significantly affect daily life (for example sleep apnea)
– pus accumulates on tonsils
Tonsillectomies for Children vs. Adults
Tonsillitis most commonly occurs in people ages 5 to 15. School aged children and teens can experience greater exposure to germs leading to infection. But this does not mean that adults cannot (or do not) develop tonsillitis. Though less likely than children, adults can have tonsillitis enough times to qualify for a tonsillectomy.
The surgical procedure is the exact same, no matter the person’s age. But adults tend to take longer to recover because the affected area is larger. It typically takes children (and teens) one week to bounce back and resume normal activities and it can take adults up to two weeks. Recovery recommendations are also the same:
– take pain medication as needed
– drink plenty of fluids
– do not engage in strenuous activity
– consume easy foods
It is also important to note that there are two types of tonsillectomies:
– partial: only part of the tonsils is removed
– total: the tonsils are completely removed
You would need a consultation to discuss which surgical option would be more effective for you long-term. The procedure and recovery are essentially the same process for children and adults. It is not riskier or necessarily more painful for adults, it just may take slightly more time to fully heal.
Benefits & Risks of Removing Your Tonsils
It is important to be aware of the benefits and risks associated with tonsillectomies. The most significant benefit of course is that once the tonsils are removed, they can no longer become infected. This alleviates chronic tonsillitis and the symptoms it produces which can really disrupt daily life.
However, it is crucial to know that other areas of the throat can still become infected. Removing the tonsils prevents infection of that specific area and not the entire throat. This means that it is still possible to develop strep throat and a sore throat. There are studies that show that people who have had their tonsils removed are less likely to experience this but it is important to be aware of the possibility.
The greatest risk to know about tonsillectomy is post-operative bleeding. It typically takes up to one week for the scabs that form over the raw muscles to fall off. If bleeding occurs, it is likely during this period.
People can experience loss of blood in different amounts so it is important to monitor if this happens. Dangerous levels of bleeding are not particularly common after the surgery. Studies have shown that bleeding occurs in 5 out of 100 adults who undergo a tonsillectomy – the level of bleeding is unclear.