09 February 2019

Your tonsils may be the cause of your bad breath

Tonsil stones may be small, but their smell can be a pretty big deal.

Have you noticed that no matter how often and how hard you brush, rinse and floss, you’re still stuck with bad breath?

You may be dealing with something called tonsil stones.

ENT specialist Dr Sharon Williams describes what tonsil stones are and how they are formed: "The tonsillar surface is not smooth but has numerous tonsillar crypts that open onto the surface. These crypts may contain mucus, organic materials like minerals and proteins, dead cells, and most likely bacteria as well – a result of recurrent tonsillitis, unresolved tonsillitis or chronic inflammation of the tonsils. This debris may become trapped or calcified, causing tonsillar stones, otherwise known as tonsilloliths, which may occur at any stage from childhood into old age."

Dr Williams adds that although halitosis is a common complaint in people with tonsilloliths, these stones are not that common. 

Dental hygiene

Having tonsil stones is not harmful or a sign of any serious disease, but depending on their size they can be quite uncomfortable. Poor dental hygiene is the most common causes of these smelly stones, but sometimes they develop as the result of really big tonsils that tend to trap these particles more easily.

Researchers, however, point out that these tonsilloliths are more than just annoying little stones; they’re actually living dental biofilms which respire oxygen and nitrates.

Getting rid of tonsil stones is not a difficult feat. Most of the time they become dislodged when you brush your teeth or while coughing. "Tonsilloliths usually extrude spontaneously, and many people will complain of spitting out yellow or white concretions with the consistency of a dry piece of bread," says Dr Williams. 

These stones do not have a specific shape but instead take on the shape of the crevice in which they are formed. They usually range from one to three millimetres in size. The colour tends to be varying shades of white and yellow.

Clearing the stones

If you think you have tonsil stones and want to get rid of them, you’ll need a flashlight and a cotton swab.

Use the flashlight to illuminate your mouth. Once you’ve spotted the stones, gently wiggle them out with the cotton swab.

If you’re not comfortable poking around in your mouth, you can gargle with salt water, which will help dislodge the stones and clean out the crevices in your tonsils.

Should these stones become a big problem, you might want to consult your local ENT specialist and consider removing your tonsils altogether.

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Oral health expert

Dr Imraan Hoosen qualified from the Medical University of South Africa in 1997. Together with his partner, Dr Hoosen now runs a group of dental practices around Johannesburg (Lesedi Private Hospital, Highlands North Medical Centre , Brenthurst Clinic, Parklane Clinic, Simmonds Street Medical and Dental Centre, Soni Medical Centre- Newclare). Dr Hoosen can be contacted on 011 933 4096.

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