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Tonsils - Facts, and Functions

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Tonsils are a part of the body’s immune system. These soft tissues are located behind the nose and the roof of the mouth. Scroll down to read more.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Oliyath Ali

Published At October 14, 2022
Reviewed AtOctober 14, 2022

What Are Tonsils?

Tonsils are a part of the lymphoid system, which plays an important role in the body’s immune system and helps the body fight against infections. They are present on either side of the back of the throat. Each tonsil is composed of the tissue-like presence in the lymph nodes, which is covered by mucosa-like presence inside the mouth. Tonsils vary in size in different people and increase in size during infections.

Where Are Tonsils Located?

There are three sets of tonsils: pharyngeal tonsils (commonly known as adenoids), palatine tonsils, and lingual tonsils. The palatine tonsils are most commonly referred to as tonsils. They are oval-shaped, around pea-sized clusters of lymph cells in the pharynx at the opening of either side of the throat. The size of the tonsils is larger in children, and they gradually decrease in size when they grow up.

What Is the Function of Tonsils?

Even though the size of the tonsils seems to be small, they play an important role in our body. These tonsils prevent the entry of foreign bodies entering into the lungs. When the air enters the nose and mouth, they contain all bacteria and viruses which are present in the atmosphere; the tonsils filter these bacteria and viruses. Also, they produce white blood cells and antibodies, which are part of the body's defense system. They are the first line of defense as part of the immune system.

What Are the Conditions Affecting Tonsils?

There are various conditions that affect the tonsils; they are briefly discussed below:

  • Tonsillitis - Tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils, that is, palatine tonsils. The signs and symptoms of tonsillitis include enlarged tonsils, sore throat, pain and difficulty while swallowing, and tenderness in the lymph nodes on the side of the neck. The common causes of tonsillitis are viral infections, but bacterial infections can also cause tonsillitis. The treatment will depend upon the exact cause of the condition; hence the diagnosis plays an important role in the treatment. Surgery to remove tonsils might be needed in case of recurrent infections that do not respond to the treatment.

  • Peritonsillar Abscess - Peritonsillar abscess is the collection of pus behind the tonsils caused by an infection. The signs and symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess include fever, throat pain, trouble opening the mouth, and a change in voice. The patient will have severe pain on one side. The complications associated with peritonsillar abscess are aspiration pneumonia and blockage of the airway. Bacterial infections usually cause a peritonsillar abscess. The diagnosis is made by looking for the signs and symptoms and correlating them with medical imaging. The treatment will include pus removal, sufficient fluids, and pain medication.

  • Acute Mononucleosis - This disease, often called the kissing disease, is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. This infection spreads through saliva. This disease is common among teenagers and young adults. This infection can cause fever, swelling of the tonsils, sore throat, and rashes. They diagnose this condition depending on the symptoms and blood tests. The treatment of this condition includes rest, hydration, and painkillers. The complications include an enlarged spleen which can rupture, leading to a life-threatening situation.

  • Tonsilloliths - Tonsilloliths are also called tonsil stones caused due to mineralization of debris within the crevices of tonsils. The symptoms of tonsillitis include bad breath and irritation in the throat. Usually, pain is not seen in such patients. If the stone is not producing any other manifestation, then intervention is not required, but if it affects the life of the patient, then saline gargles or manual removal of the stone can be done. They are usually diagnosed during imaging for some other conditions.

  • Tonsillar Hypertrophy - Tonsillar hypertrophy refers to persistently enlarged tonsils. These enlarged tonsils can be a sign of infection or irritation from things like smoke or air pollution. Also, some people have enlarged tonsils for some other reason. The symptoms include difficulty in breathing, mouth breathing, snoring, and bad breath. The diagnosis is made depending on the symptoms; sometimes, throat culture tests may also be advised. The treatment will depend on the severity of the symptoms; if it is not affecting the patient’s sleep, breath, and eating, then interference is not required. Antibiotics will be prescribed if the cause is underlying infections, and surgery is done in case the tonsils are causing difficulty in breathing.

The various tests done to diagnose diseases that affect the tonsils are:

  • Throat Swab - A cotton swab is used to take a sample from the throat and the tonsils by rubbing them, which is then sent to the laboratories. This is done to check for bacteria like streptococcus.

  • Monospot Test - It is a blood test that is done to detect certain antibodies, which will help to diagnose mononucleosis.

  • Epstein- Barr Virus Antibodies - In case the monospot test is negative, then looking for the antibodies against them will confirm the diagnosis.

The various conditions affecting the tonsils are treated in the following ways:

  • Antibiotics - When the disease is caused due to bacterial infection, especially streptococcal infection, it can be treated using antibiotics.

  • Surgery - When the infections are frequent and are responding well to other treatment options, or there are enlarged tonsils that affect breathing, then tonsillectomy (removal of tonsils) is done.

  • Abscess Drainage - In the case of abscesses, abscess drainage is advised to remove the pus and other fluid collections. In this procedure, the abscess is punctured with a needle and is allowed to drain and heal.

Whom Should be Seen for Tonsil Related Conditions?

An ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist must be consulted when an adult or a child has issues related to tonsils.


Tonsils are a part of the body's immune system. They are the first line of defense when the bacterias or viruses enter the body through the nose or the mouth. Tonsils are larger in size as they are frequently exposed to infections, and they gradually decrease in size with age. Generally, tonsil-related issues are more commonly seen in children and do not cause any serious complications. But, it is always advised to consult a doctor before starting any treatment.

Dr. Oliyath Ali
Dr. Oliyath Ali

Otolaryngology (E.N.T)


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