A tonsil cyst is a lump on one or both of the tonsils. A doctor should check to rule out other conditions that can cause growths in the area.

The tonsils are two masses of soft tissue at the back of the throat. When cysts form there, they may not cause symptoms or be noticeable. A person may only feel the presence of larger cysts. These cysts are usually not a cause for concern.

Below, learn all about tonsil cysts and other issues that can be easy to mistake for them.

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A cyst is a slow-growing, noncancerous mass of cells contained in a sac wall. Cysts can form anywhere in the body.

Types of cyst that may develop on the tonsils include:

  • Tonsillar retention cysts: These are common and may cause difficulty swallowing.
  • Epidermoid cysts: This type is common in other areas of the body but very rarely appears on the tonsils.
  • Lymphoepithelial cysts: These usually appear as small bumps under the tongue or on the floor of the mouth. They very rarely form on the tonsils.
  • Hydatid cysts: These are also very rare on the tonsils. They form because of a tapeworm called Echinococcus granulosus.

Most tonsil cysts do not cause symptoms, so people might not seek medical care. As a result, researchers are unsure how common they really are.

Tonsillar retention cysts are the most common type of tonsil cyst. They form because of blocked mucus glands.

Epidermoid cysts account for less than 0.01% of all cystic lesions in the mouth and throat.

A person might not know that they have a tonsil cyst until a healthcare professional finds it while examining the area for other reasons.

Tonsil cysts do not usually cause symptoms and grow slowly. They are not typically a cause for concern.

However, a lump on the tonsils can result from more serious issues. Anyone with a growth on their tonsils should let a doctor know.

Cysts on the tonsils may cause no symptoms. They are usually painless and grow slowly.

A larger cyst may feel like a foreign object in the back of the throat and cause difficulty swallowing.

Other symptoms may include:

  • pain
  • an earache
  • a dry cough

Learn what could cause swollen tonsils here.

A doctor may recommend surgically removing the cyst, which is kept intact to avoid irritating surrounding tissues. Some people need a full tonsillectomy, which involves removing the tonsils.

Instead, a doctor may recommend watchful waiting, to see whether any changes in the cyst occur.

This is a type of oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer that begins in the mouth or throat. Cells grow too quickly and form one or more tumors.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, more than 54,000 adults in the country receive a diagnosis of oral or oropharyngeal cancer each year.

Symptoms

A person with tonsil cancer may have:

  • a sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal
  • red or white patches on the affected tonsil
  • mouth pain or bleeding
  • an earache
  • bad breath
  • changes in speech
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue
  • a new mass or lump on the neck

Treatment

The treatment plan may involve a combination of approaches, including:

  • Surgery: This involves removing the tumor and some healthy tissue around it to ensure that all the cancerous tissue is gone. The approach to surgery depends on the size and location of the tumor.
  • Radiation therapy: This is the use of high-energy particles to destroy cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy: This involves using certain drugs to eliminate cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy: This enhances the body’s immune system, and doctors may combine it with other treatments.
  • Targeted therapy: This targets cancer cells, and doctors may also combine it with other treatments.

Several health conditions share some features with tonsil cysts. Some examples include:

Tonsil stones

These are also known as tonsilloliths. They occur when debris, such as dead cells or food, collect in the crevices of the tonsils and harden, forming small yellow or white “stones.”

The size can vary widely. A person may be unaware that they have them, but someone might mistake a large tonsil stone for a cyst.

One symptom is bad breath, as the stones attract bacteria and fungi.

Learn more about tonsil stones here.

Tonsilitis

Tonsillitis happens due to a bacterial or viral infection in the tonsils. The illness is highly contagious, and it is common in children.

Symptoms can include a fever, chills, swelling of the tonsils, and a sore throat. Yellow or white pus may be visible on the tonsils, and people may mistake this for cysts.

Peritonsillar abscess

Peritonsillar abscesses are also called “quinsy.” A peritonsillar abscess is an infected pocket of pus, while a cyst has a wall or lining.

These abscesses result from tonsillitis and can be painful. A doctor may treat them with antibiotics or drain them.

Strep throat

Strep throat is a highly contagious infection that results from group A Streptococcus bacteria.

This condition can cause the tonsils to become inflamed and red, with white patches. A person may mistake these for cysts.

Learn how to recognise strep throat here.

Infectious mononucleosis

Also known as mono, the “kissing disease,” or glandular fever, this is a viral infection of the tonsils.

It can cause swelling of the tonsils and a sore throat, which might cause a person to suspect that they have tonsil cysts.

Anyone who may have a tonsil cyst should contact a healthcare professional. Tonsil cysts are unlikely to cause issues, but they can be similar to many other conditions, and these require treatment.

It is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if a person also experiences:

  • a persistent high fever
  • swelling that interferes with breathing
  • muscle weakness

Tonsil cysts are noncancerous masses of cells on the tonsils, at the back of the throat. They grow slowly and are generally no cause for concern.

Many health conditions that need treating can be similar to tonsil cysts, however. Anyone who notices a growth on their tonsils should contact a doctor.