When you think of your body producing ‘stones,’ you probably think of more common ailments, like bladder or kidney stones. But did you know that your tonsils can create stones, too? Most people have never heard of tonsilloliths or tonsilliths (aka tonsil stones), but these tiny formations can cause their fair share of problems in your mouth. But, due to their size of tonsil stones, many people never even realize they have them! We spoke to Dr. Stephen Hill of Allen, TX about what tonsil stones are, and what you can do to get rid of them.

To understand tonsil stones, you must first understand the purpose of the tonsils. Tonsils are lymph nodes that not only deploy white blood cells to filter viruses and bacteria away from the lungs, but they also serve as a barricade that keeps foreign particles from your mouth from accidentally falling into your lungs. Tonsils are porous, and contain little divots known as "crypts." Tonsil stones form when by-products created by the white blood cells when fighting the viruses and bacteria mix with bits of debris like food particles and plaque, and become lodged in these tonsil crypts.

These stones often appear as little white spots on the tonsils, but though they sound uncomfortable, they frequently go unnoticed. "Typically, when I diagnose a patient with tonsil stones, not only have they never heard of them but they never even realize they had a problem," says Hill. That’s because tonsil stones are often so small they can cause very little to no irritation at all- and if they do, it’s usually just a slight nuisance, like a minor sore throat or throat irritation.

So what can you do to get rid of tonsil stones? According to Hill, the solution is easier than you may think. "Believe it or not, tonsil stones can usually be removed by simply gargling with salt water or mouthwash. If that doesn’t work, you can also try scraping them with a toothbrush or cotton swab." If neither of those techniques work, Hill suggests trying a device like a Waterpik that irrigates the tonsils with water- or scheduling an appointment with your dentist. "Your dentist has tools that may be able to remove some of the more stubborn tonsil stones, but generally speaking they will fall out on their own without much intervention." In more extreme cases, where patients suffer from chronic, painful tonsil stones, they may need a tonsillectomy, but Hill cautions that this should only be used as a last ditch effort. "Tonsillectomies have their own set of risks and require a bit of downtime to recover- not to mention the need for anesthesia. For most cases of tonsil stones, a tonsillectomy would be like amputating a hand to deal with a sprained finger."

As for preventing tonsil stones, Hill says the answer is equally simple. "Mouthwash. Any over-the-counter, alcohol-free mouthwash will help keep the tonsils clean and loosen any debris from the tonsil crypts. You can also gargle with salt water, or a solution of half water, half 3% hydrogen peroxide."