Every so often, you develop a health symptom so bizarre that it sends you into a total shame spiral—like discovering smelly, white chunks in your mouth. But guess what: We all have weirdo body issues that creep up and freak us out. We asked an expert and it turns out those chunks are actually totally normal—and not a cause for concern. Here’s what you need to know.
Why you can stop spiraling: Almost everyone gets them. Your tonsils have tons of tiny crevices where bacteria and dead cells can get trapped and harden and occasionally stick together in chunks of foul-smelling white stuff that you suddenly feel under the back of your tongue, says Brunilda Nazario, M.D., an associate medical director at WebMD. If you’ve had bouts of tonsillitis, you’re especially stones-prone. (Learn about the benefits of bone broth with Women’s Health’s Bone Broth Diet!)
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What to do now: Just spit those puppies out as they come! But if they really bother you, open up wide in front of a mirror. Toward the back of your throat, on both sides, you’ll see your tonsils—almond-shaped structures behind your back teeth. And right in front of them, there’s a skin fold where the stones hang. You can nudge them out with a cotton swab. More rarely, stones can grow large enough to make it hard for you to swallow, in which case you’ll need a doctor to remove them for you.
We asked a hot doc to address more of your top health concerns:
Cassie Shortsleeve Freelance Writer Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel.
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What Is Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis (pronounced: tahn-suh-LYE-tus) is an infection of the tonsils caused by viruses or some types of bacteria.
Tonsils are lumps of tissue on both sides of the back of the throat that help the immune system protect the body from infections. But sometimes infections are too much for the tonsils to handle, and these fighters of infection become infected themselves.
Infected tonsils get swollen and red, and have a yellow or white coating. A person with tonsillitis may have a sore throat, fever, swollen glands in the neck, and trouble swallowing.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Tonsillitis?
Inflamed tonsils look red and swollen, and may be covered with a yellow or whitish coating or spots. Someone with tonsillitis may have:
- a sore throat, which can be mild to severe
- white spots or pus on the tonsils
- swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck
- voice changes
- a fever
- painful swallowing
If you have symptoms of tonsillitis, call your doctor.
What Causes Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is usually caused by a
- the flu
- Epstein-Barr virus (mono)
Bacteria also can cause it, most commonly group A streptococcus (strep throat). Rarely, tonsillitis can be caused by something other than an infection.
How Is Tonsillitis Diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your throat and neck. Your doctor may use a soft cotton swab to gently collect a sample from your tonsils and the back of your throat for testing.
It’s important for your doctor to know if
are causing the infection. If you have strep throat, you’ll need treatment with to kill the bacteria. This will help you feel better and prevent other problems that can come from untreated strep throat.
How Is Tonsillitis Treated?
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure to follow the directions carefully. Finish taking all the medicine even if your symptoms go away and you feel better, or the infection could come back.
If a strep test comes back negative, it’s probably a virus causing the tonsillitis and antibiotics won’t help. Just like with a cold (also caused by a virus), you’ll have to take it easy for several days and let the virus run its course.
Rarely, if someone gets tonsillitis a lot, the doctor or an otolaryngologist (pronounced: oh-toe-lar-un-GA-luh-jist, a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat problems) may recommend a tonsillectomy (pronounced: tahn-suh-LEK-tuh-mee). This is a surgery to remove the tonsils. Tonsillectomy used to be a common procedure, but now experts recommend watching and waiting because large tonsils often shrink on their own over time.
How Can I Feel Better?
Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. You can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve any pain or discomfort. (Don’t take aspirin or other products that contain aspirin, though, because these may put you at risk of developing Reye syndrome, an illness that can have serious complications.)
Avoid smoking or anything that will irritate your throat. It’s best to drink lots of liquids. You may prefer softer foods, like applesauce, flavored gelatin, or ice cream. If you don’t feel like eating, try drinking liquids that contain calories, such as fruit juices, milkshakes, and soups and broths.
If you’re on antibiotics, it’s usually OK to return to school 24 hours after you start taking them if your fever is gone and you feel better. If you’re still feeling weak, tired, or achy, it may be best to stay home for another day or two.
How Can I Prevent Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is contagious. This means you can get it from someone else who has it. Sneezing and coughing can pass the tonsillitis-causing virus or bacteria from one person to the next.
To protect yourself from catching tonsillitis or to prevent passing it to somebody else:
- Wash your hands well and often.
- If someone in your household or a friend has tonsillitis, don’t use that person’s cups, glasses, silverware, toothbrush, or other utensils. And if you have tonsillitis, keep your stuff separate and don’t share it with anyone.
- Don’t kiss anyone until you’re completely over the tonsillitis.
- Get a new toothbrush after you feel better and are no longer contagious.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call your doctor right away if your condition gets worse; for example, if you have a hard time breathing or swallowing. Also talk to your doctor if your fever comes back or if you’re not feeling better in a couple of days.
Reviewed by: Steven M. Andreoli, MD Date reviewed: October 2019
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Everything you need to know about tonsil stones, the weird growths that look like pimples in your throat
The INSIDER Summary:
- Tonsil stones are small growths that can lodge themselves in your tonsils.
- They’re gross, but they’re generally harmless.
- There a tons of YouTube videos showing tonsil stones getting popped out.
- They’re really fun to watch.
Disgusting medical videos are all the rage on YouTube these days. Pimple popping, cyst draining, earwax removal, back cracking, foot callus scraping — you name it, there are probably millions of people who want to watch it on video.
The removal of tonsil stones — tiny, pebble-like growths that can be popped out of the tonsils — is no exception. It’s a little bit like pimple popping, just inside a throat. And watching it happen on video is really satisfying.
First, a quick explainer for the uninitiated: Your tonsils are actually part of your immune system, the Mayo Clinic notes. They make white blood cells and antibodies and help fight off infections. But they also happen to be full of spooky-sounding cavities called tonsillar crypts. Some people’s crypts are deep enough that bits of food or mucus can get stuck deep inside.
Over time, those bits of debris can calcify, turning into hard, pale yellow growths made of calcium and other minerals. These are tonsil stones, and they can range in size from microscopic to a few centimeters in diameter, according to one scientific paper.
This is what a tonsil stone looks like. Iphotostock/
Sometimes they’re nothing more than a nuisance. But there are some case reports showing that tonsil stones can cause difficulty breathing, pain when swallowing, ear pain, and bad breath.
Fortunately, you can easily remove them at home. The Mayo Clinic recommends gently pushing on the tonsil with a cotton swab or your toothbrush until the stone pops out. People who get them all the time could also consider getting their tonsils outright removed.
And if you ever need a video tutorial to guide you, fear not: A search for “tonsil stones” on YouTube returns roughly 80,000 results. Like all great medical videos, they’re hard to watch but even harder to stop watching. Here, we’ve rounded up a few of the very best:
This tonsil stone pop is short, sweet, and to the point. No wonder it has more than 15 million views.
If you want to watch someone freak out about their own tonsil stones, we recommend this hilarious DIY removal performed by a tween and caught on video by her horrified sister.
And if you want stone-popping compilation check out this up-close-and-personal video from a YouTube channel called Tonsil Stone Man.
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Way in the back of your throat are your tonsils — one on the right and one on the left. They are part of your body’s infection-fighting system to keep you from getting sick.
But what happens if these infection fighters get infected? Then you have tonsillitis (say: tahn-suh-LYE-tus).
What Are Tonsils?
The tonsils’ job is to help fight germs that come in through our mouth or nose before they cause infections in the rest of the body. Usually, tonsils do their job well. But sometimes bacteria or viruses get into the tonsils and infect them. When this happens, you have tonsillitis.
How Can I Tell if I Have Tonsillitis?
If you have tonsillitis, your throat usually hurts and it’s hard to eat, drink, or even swallow. You also might have a fever.
Here are some other signs that bacteria or a virus are infecting your tonsils:
- red (swollen or irritated) tonsils
- a yellow or white coating on the tonsils
- swollen glands in the neck
- bad breath
What Will the Doctor Do?
The doctor will ask you how you’ve been feeling and then look at your tonsils. He or she will probably use a wooden stick called a tongue depressor to help hold your tongue down to get a good look at what’s going on in there.
The doctor also might look into your nose and ears, listen to your chest, feel your neck, and look for other signs of infection. Bacteria and viruses both can cause tonsillitis. It’s important for your doctor to know if it’s caused by strep bacteria. If you have this kind of infection, known as strep throat, you need medicine to kill the strep bacteria.
To check for strep, the doctor will use a long cotton swab to swipe the back of your throat. This test, called a throat culture, doesn’t hurt but can feel a little weird. Your doctor may use the swab to do a test called a rapid strep test. Within minutes, this test will tell your doctor if there are any strep bacteria in your throat. If it’s positive, you have strep throat. If it’s negative, the doctor will send a sample to a lab for testing and get the result in a couple of days.
If the tonsillitis is caused by strep bacteria, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics, a type of medicine that kills bacteria. It’s very important to take the antibiotics exactly as directed and to finish the entire prescription — even if you start feeling better in a few days — or the infection could come back.
If the tonsillitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t work and your body will fight off the infection on its own.
Sometimes kids get an operation to remove their tonsils, but only if their tonsils get infected a lot or are so big they make it hard for the kid to breathe at night.
If you get tonsillitis, here are some tips that can help you feel better:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- If it hurts to swallow regular food, try smooth foods, like flavored gelatin, soups, ice pops, and applesauce.
- Take it easy until you feel better.
- Wash your hands well and often.
Soon your tonsils will be back in action and ready to fight germs again!
Reviewed by: Steven M. Andreoli, MD Date reviewed: October 2019