A child’s adenoids can sometimes become swollen and, occasionally, infected. If enlarged adenoids cause sleeping or breathing difficulties, a doctor may recommend adenoid removal, or adenoidectomy.

In this article, we look at what adenoids are, the symptoms of their enlargement, and reasons for having them removed. We also explain the adenoid removal procedure, risks and possible complications, and recovery following surgery.

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Adenoids are glands high up in the throat behind the nose and roof of the mouth. They are part of the body’s immune system.

The adenoids catch germs in the nose before they can cause illness. However, these glands can become swollen as they fight off bacteria or viruses.

When this happens, the adenoids may enlarge and interfere with breathing and sleeping. They may also feel sore.

Ongoing enlargement of the adenoids can block the eustachian tube, which connects the ears to the nose and drains fluid from the middle ear. This blockage causes fluid to build up in the ear, which can lead to repeated ear infections and potential hearing loss.

If enlarged adenoids are causing symptoms, a doctor may initially try to treat the problem with medications or other treatments. If symptoms persist, the doctor may then recommend surgery to remove the adenoids. This surgery is called an adenoidectomy.

Adenoids tend to be largest during early childhood, after which they begin to shrink. For most people, the adenoids become very small or disappear once they reach their teenage years. As a result, adenoid removal mostly occurs in young children.

However, adults may occasionally require adenoid removal if there is a possibility of cancer or a tumor on the adenoids.

The doctor will take a child’s medical history into account before recommending adenoid removal. This procedure may be beneficial if one or more of the following problems are occurring:

  • recurring ear infections that do not respond to antibiotics
  • a buildup of fluid in the ear and earaches from adenoid swelling
  • repeated infections of the adenoids that do not clear up with antibiotics
  • excessive daytime sleepiness due to adenoids interfering with sleep
  • behavior or learning issues as a result of poor quality sleep
  • snoring or sleep apnea due to enlarged adenoids

Most of the time, enlarged adenoids affect children. Infants and younger children may not be able to express that they are in pain or experiencing other symptoms of enlarged adenoids. Some signs to look out for in babies and children include:

These signs do not always mean a child has swollen adenoids, but it is important to contact a doctor to determine their cause.

The doctor who performs adenoidectomies is an otolaryngologist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Doctors usually place children under general anesthesia during adenoid removal, which means that they will be sleeping and unable to feel any pain. It is important that the child avoid all food and drink for several hours before surgery to prevent vomiting during the procedure.

For the adenoidectomy, surgeons use an instrument to see inside the throat and nasal cavity. They can access the adenoids through the back of the throat, so they do not need to make any external incisions.

The surgeon removes the adenoid tissue. In most cases, the surgery takes less than an hour, and the child can go home on the same day if there are no complications. Children who are very young, have certain high risk conditions, or have trouble breathing may need to stay in the hospital overnight for observation.

In many cases, a doctor may remove the tonsils along with the adenoids. The tonsils are also glands that help protect against germs. However, they sit in the back of the throat rather than behind the nose.

Sometimes, both the tonsils and adenoids become swollen and infected. The removal of both glands at the same time is known as a tonsilloadenoidectomy.

Not everyone who needs an adenoidectomy will require tonsil removal and vice versa. Doctors base the decision to remove either or both these glands on the child’s specific symptoms and medical history. Children who tend to have swelling of both the tonsils and adenoids may be good candidates for a tonsilloadenoidectomy.

Surgeons perform around 130,000 adenoid removals each year in the United States. Adenoid removal surgery is generally safe, and healthy children will have a low risk of complications. However, possible side effects and risks of an adenoidectomy include:

After adenoid removal, it is vital to seek immediate medical assistance if the child bleeds from the nose or mouth.

The lack of incision during the surgery means that stitches are unnecessary. The child may feel pain or discomfort in the throat, nose, and ears for several days following surgery.

The doctor may prescribe pain relievers or recommend over-the-counter medications to help relieve any pain. These should never include aspirin, which can increase a child’s risk of developing Reye’s syndrome.

In general, most children recover from adenoid removal within 1–2 weeks. Doing the following may help with a child’s recovery:

  • Offering plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration. Popsicles may be helpful if the child is not drinking enough or feels sick. If signs of dehydration occur, contact a doctor immediately.
  • Eating soft foods can help with a sore throat, but drinking is more important than eating. The child is likely to start eating normally again after a few days.
  • Keeping the child home from school or daycare until they can eat and drink normally, no longer need pain medicine, and are sleeping well.
  • Avoiding airplane travel for at least 2 weeks after surgery due to air pressure changes when flying at high altitudes.

A mild fever is typical on the day of surgery, but it is essential to call a doctor if the fever is 102°F or higher or if the child seems very unwell. Some noisy breathing and snoring for up to 2 weeks after surgery is not unusual, but this will usually stop once the swelling subsides.

If possible, doctors recommend staying near a hospital during the immediate recovery period should any complications arise.

If enlarged adenoids are causing breathing issues, problems swallowing, or recurrent ear infections, removing them may be the best option. The surgery is safe and effective for most children.

However, there are some things to consider before deciding on adenoid removal. Recent research suggests that removing a child’s adenoids or tonsils may increase their risk of developing respiratory, infectious, and allergic conditions later in life.

Adenoid removal, as with all surgery, also carries a small risk of infection or other complications. Adenoids can sometimes grow back after surgery, but this is rare.

Most children who undergo adenoid removal will recover without any long-term health issues. However, parents and caregivers should discuss the benefits and risks with a doctor before moving forward with the procedure.