Tonsil stones are small stones that form in the tonsils. Though they are usually symptomless, they can cause minor issues such as sore throat and bad breath.

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The tonsils sit in the back of the throat and are part of the lymphatic and immune systems. Ideally, the tonsils capture and catch bacteria before they reach a person’s oral cavity.

However, the tonsils have small folds, also called crypts, allowing bacteria and food to collect. This can create small, stone-like formations that doctors call tonsil stones or tonsilloliths.

In addition to bad breath, these stones can cause a sore throat, painful swallowing, hoarseness, and inflamed, red tonsils. They can also be asymptomatic and require no treatment.

In this article, learn how to get rid of tonsil stones at home and when to contact a doctor.

A low-pressure water irrigator, such as a water flosser, can help loosen tonsil stones.

To use this, a person can stand in front of a well-lit mirror and aim the irrigator toward the tonsil stones. However, they should be careful when freeing a tonsil stone — it can fall toward the back of the throat and cause coughing. A person should not try this method on children, as it can pose a choking hazard.

People can also use an irrigator to regularly flush the tonsils to help prevent tonsil stones from forming.

Gently swishing a nonalcoholic mouthwash around the mouth can loosen tonsil stones and reduce the number of bacteria in the mouth. Reducing bacteria can help prevent tonsil stones from forming.

Gargling with warm salt water may help loosen tonsil stones. A person can prepare this by adding half a teaspoon of salt to a cup of warm water. They can gargle the liquid for several seconds and repeat if necessary.

Saltwater gargles may also help relieve a sore, scratchy throat.

Gargling with diluted apple cider vinegar (ACV) may help dislodge and break down the materials in the tonsil stones.

To make this mixture, a person can mix 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with 1 cup of warm water. Gargling with this up to three times a day can help loosen stones.

However, it is important to note that the risks of using ACV include the possibility of digestive issues and tooth decay.

Read more about the side effects of ACV.

Some people use cotton swabs to dislodge tonsil stones from the back of the throat. This method poses some risk of injury, so a person should talk with a doctor before trying it. They should never attempt to use this on a child.

If an individual decides to remove their tonsil stones with a swab, they should dampen the swab, insert it toward the back of the throat, and gently sweep the stones away. They should also avoid touching the middle portion of the throat, as this can trigger the gag reflex.

Because many blood vessels surround the tonsils, it is essential to try only a few sweeps with the cotton swab. If bleeding occurs, people should stop right away.

Some people find that a strong cough can help dislodge a tonsil stone. This is a less invasive approach, so it may be a suitable idea to try coughing before using a cotton swab or toothbrush.

A person can use this method by first gargling with salt water to loosen the stone. They can then try a series of hard coughs.

Tonsil stones usually fall out with time. A person may cough out a stone or feel it dislodge before swallowing it.

However, if a person has a persistent stone that seems to be getting larger, they should speak with a doctor.

For an individual with frequent, irritating tonsil stones, a doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, which involves surgically removing the tonsils.

While the surgery is common in children, both children and adults may experience significant bleeding and recovery times. Adults typically have longer recovery times than children.

A doctor usually only recommends a tonsillectomy if a person is experiencing significant pain, infection, or problematic halitosis due to their tonsil stones.

Individuals can speak with a doctor if they have questions.

If a person cannot remove a tonsil stone with the above home remedies, they should not try to force the stone out with a sharp object. This can cause bleeding and infection.

The area around the tonsils contains many blood vessels, so people should not attempt to remove tonsil stones with sharp objects, such as toothpicks, pens, or safety pins.

If a person has a tonsil stone that persists for several weeks, or if they experience symptoms relating to tonsil stones, they can contact a doctor. It is also a good idea to seek medical attention if they have removed a tonsil stone but are still experiencing pain or bad breath.

People should seek medical attention for signs of tonsil infection, such as:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • enlarged tonsils
  • pain that radiates to the ears
  • pus or white discharge from the tonsils
  • bleeding in the tonsil area
  • sleep-disordered breathing

A doctor can decide on the best course of action for a child with tonsil stones or inflamed tonsils. Trying to dislodge a tonsil stone in a child can cause choking.

People may require antibiotics and rest to treat an active infection.

While tonsil stones are usually a minor irritation, they sometimes lead to infection and discomfort. People can often resolve them at home with strategies such as salt water gargling, coughing, and using a cotton swab or toothbrush.

If tonsil stones persist or cause painful symptoms, a person should contact a doctor.

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