This is a great question that comes up a lot. Everyone has heard of tonsils, but very few people actually know what they are or what they do.
The tonsils are small balls of tissue on either side of the back of the throat. They are made of lymphatic tissue and their primary role is fighting infection. This role is especially important in children since their immune systems haven’t been fully fortified by exposure to all the bacteria and germs that an adult’s system has. Perhaps ironically, as their sole function is to prevent infection, they are prone to becoming infected themselves. That’s called tonsillitis.
The primary symptoms of tonsillitis include a sore throat, swollen tonsils and fever. If you look in your child’s mouth, you may see tonsils that appear red, larger than normal and with a yellow or white coating.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, as many as 30 percent of tonsillitis cases are caused by streptococci bacteria. Strep throat is highly contagious. If you suspect strep throat, contact your primary doctor’s office to be checked and treated; on rare occasions infection may result in damage to the heart or joints. If your child is diagnosed with strep throat, keep him or her home from school or daycare until cleared by your doctor. As with any illness, in addition to practicing good hygiene, be sure everyone in the family washes their hands regularly.
Your doctor may recommend removal of the tonsils (a tonsillectomy) if repeated sore throats are impacting school attendance and quality of life. If your child experiences more than seven infections in one year, five infections a year for two consecutive years, or three infections a year for three years or more, a tonsillectomy might be necessary.
The most common reason for tonsil removal is snoring due to tonsil enlargement. As mentioned, tonsils may enlarge during infection. If they grow too large, they can narrow the back of the throat and may cause snoring or difficulty swallowing. Nighttime symptoms of concern include pausing in breathing, gasping, choking, bedwetting and teeth grinding. Daytime symptoms may include excessive sleepiness, poor attention span and hyperactivity. Your doctor may recommend a sleep study — an overnight test to measure breathing — if more information about your child’s sleep is needed.
Approximately half a million surgeries to remove the tonsils are performed per year in the United States. At Children’s Wisconsin, we never refer to any surgery as “routine,” especially when general anesthesia is involved. Because of children’s growing bodies, they react differently to anesthesia than adults. That’s why anesthesiologists at Children’s Wisconsin are specially trained in pediatric medicine and have the expertise and experience to know how to administer anesthesia safely and effectively to children at any age.
A tonsillectomy takes approximately 30 minutes from start to finish and you can expect to spend several hours afterward in the hospital — in some cases the child will stay overnight. Recovery is painful, and may last up to seven to 10 days. Encouraging eating and drinking helps speed up the recovery process. But after about a week or two, your child should be fully recovered without any lingering limitations. Although tonsils are lymph tissue, studies have shown that children do not have an increase in infections and are healthier after removal.
If you are concerned about tonsil enlargement and breathing, or repeated tonsil infections, I recommend you speak with your child’s primary doctor. Your doctor will refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngologist) who can talk to you if surgery is helpful for your child.
Ear, nose and throat specialists from Children’s Wisconsin care for children at our Milwaukee, Delafield, Mequon, Greenfield and New Berlin clinic locations.