Give Now

A Moment of Science

Should I Have My Tonsils Removed?

Say, "Ahh!" Why do we have tonsils and why are they sometimes taken out?

man with mouth open

Photo: Alex (Flickr)

If your throat hurts, make sure to see a doctor. You could need your tonsils removed!

It was once a rite of passage for kids to have their tonsils taken out. Now, it’s relatively rare.

What’s Changed?

Years ago, doctors saw only the problems swollen tonsils can cause–sinus or ear infections, and sometimes difficulty breathing.

So, they reasoned, if it’s our tonsils that ail us, take ‘em out! But now we know tonsils are lymphatic tissues with important immune functions, filtering out bacteria, producing antibodies and helping form white blood cells.

What Do Tonsils Do?

Strategically located in the throat and nasal passages, tonsils protect our respiratory and digestive systems from infection.

But if they’re supposed to prevent infection, why do tonsils become swollen or infected? Location, location–it’s all in the location, and structure, of our six tonsils.

Where Are Tonsils Located?

If you open your mouth wide in the mirror and look at the arch in the back of your throat, you’ll see small creases on either side.

These creases extend back into two of the tonsils, making it easy for food or bacteria to enter and cause swelling and inflammation.

At the back of the nasal passages, there’s another pair of tonsils with similar creases, but these don’t swell as often–maybe because we don’t eat through our noses!

The last pair of tonsils, in the base of the tongue, has glands that drain the creases well, so they rarely swell.

Removal

Because kids’ tonsils are relatively larger than adults’, kids still occasionally need them removed to prevent problems with infection or breathing.

And other once-misunderstood lymphatic tissues, including the appendix, can take over the tonsils’ work. But in most cases, we need our tonsils right where they are, keeping us healthy.

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science