What do your tonsils do?

What do your tonsils do?

You’re probably aware of the fact that you have tonsils – but have you ever wondered what they’re for? In this article, we take a closer look at this part of the body, explaining why you have tonsils and why not everyone has them. Keep reading to find out more.

What are tonsils for?

It helps to first understand what your tonsils look like. The tonsils are a pair of soft, rounded tissue masses which can be found at the back of the throat. A person has two tonsils, with one positioned on each side of the throat. Both tonsils are covered in a moist, pink lining known as mucosa – but what do we need them for?

Your tonsils are part of the lymphatic system, which is also part of your body’s immune system. In short, the tonsils are responsible for preventing germs from entering the body through the mouth or nose, keeping you protected from bacteria and viruses so that you remain healthy. The tonsils also contain white blood cells which help fight off illnesses.

Because they are your immune system’s first line of defence against sickness, your tonsils are especially vulnerable to becoming inflamed and infected. As a result, there’s a chance of developing a tonsil-related condition – such as tonsillitis, for example.

Usually caused by a common virus or sometimes a bacterial infection, tonsillitis refers to when the tonsils are inflamed. The main tonsillitis symptoms include red, swollen tonsils, a yellow or white coating on the tonsils, a sore throat, difficulty or pain when swallowing, a high temperature, tender lymph node glands in the neck, fatigue, a headache and a stiff neck. Young children may also experience drooling, due to pain or difficulty when swallowing, a refusal to eat and an unusual fussiness[1].

Other tonsil-related illnesses can include strep throat, which is an infection of the tonsils and throat, as well as tonsilloliths, otherwise known as tonsil stones[2].

Does everyone have tonsils?

The truth is, everyone is born with a set of tonsils. At birth, the tonsils are not visible, but they start to grow within the first year of life, peaking between the ages of one and five. From this point, they slowly get smaller as a child grows and develops.

However, it is possible for the tonsils to be removed, so not everyone you know or meet will necessarily have a pair. But why do some people have their tonsils taken out?

Why do people get their tonsils removed?

There are a variety of reasons why someone might need a tonsillectomy – the surgical removal of the tonsils. One of the most common reasons is due to repeatedly experiencing problems with the tonsils, such as recurring bouts of tonsillitis. While the symptoms of this illness usually go away after a few days, ongoing bouts of severe tonsillitis can be extremely painful and even disrupt a person’s day-to-day life. In this instance, a tonsillectomy may be an option. That being said, this surgery should only be recommended when the condition does not respond to other treatments or if it causes serious complications[1]

A tonsillectomy may also be suitable for those who struggle with chronic sleep apnea or snoring. These types of sleep problems are linked to enlarged tonsils, so surgery to remove them can help solve this issue.

Performed under general anaesthetic, a tonsillectomy is usually a short operation, taking around an hour. During the procedure, a surgeon may remove the tonsils using a scalpel or a specialised surgical tool which uses heat to destroy the tissue and stop bleeding. Most patients are able to return home the day after the operation, and it can take around two weeks to recover from a tonsillectomy.

It’s important to note that, even though they are part of your immune system, having your tonsils taken out does not affect your body’s ability to fight infection[3].


[1] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tonsillitis/

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/strep-a/

[3] https://www.cuh.nhs.uk/patient-information/tonsillectomy/