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Common Infections

Tonsils and Tonsillectomies

Everybody’s heard of tonsils. But not everyone knows what tonsils do or why they sometimes need to be removed.

What Are Tonsils and Tonsillitis?

Tonsils are lumps of tissue located on either side of the back of the throat, and they help fight infections.


Tonsillitis happens when tonsils become infected by bacteria or viruses. The tonsils may become red and swollen or have a white or yellow coating on them. Other symptoms of tonsillitis can include:

  • sore throat
  • pain or discomfort when swallowing
  • fever
  • raspy voice
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck

Some healthy people have large tonsils, so it can be hard to judge whether tonsils are infected just by looking at them. If you think you may have tonsillitis, it’s best to contact a doctor to find out for sure. Your doctor will examine you and maybe run some tests to find out what’s causing the problem.

What Are Tonsillectomies?

A tonsillectomy is when someone’s tonsils are removed during surgery.

A doctor may suggest removal of the tonsils under some circumstances — for example, if someone gets tonsillitis a lot or swollen tonsils make it hard to breathe or swallow. Difficulty breathing at night can be another problem for some people with swollen tonsils. This condition, called obstructive sleep apnea (where somebody may stop breathing during sleep), can leave a person feeling tired and run down during the day.

What Happens During a Tonsillectomy?

Surgery can seem a bit scary, no matter how common or simple the procedure. If you’re having a tonsillectomy, ask your doctor about what to expect. Surgeons have several different techniques for removing the tonsils. Your doctor will give you the details on your particular procedure.

During most tonsillectomies, surgeons remove the tonsils in an operating room while a person is under general anesthesia. General anesthesia means the person is completely unconscious (or “asleep”) during the operation, with no sensations, feeling of pain, awareness, movement, or memory of the surgery. When using general anesthesia, the anesthesiologist (doctor who gives the anesthesia) will monitor your vital signs, continue to deliver anesthesia, and keep you as comfortable as possible throughout the operation. Once the operation is over, you’ll be taken to the recovery room.

For a tonsillectomy, the surgeon removes the tonsils through the mouth without making a cut on the skin. Many children are able to go home on the same day of surgery after being watched in the recovery room for several hours. Sometimes the doctor may want the patient to stay in the hospital overnight.

It can take a week or more to recover from a tonsillectomy. During recovery, a person will have a sore throat, which might make it uncomfortable to eat and drink. For this reason, the doctor will prescribe pain medication to keep you comfortable.

In a traditional tonsillectomy, the tonsils are completely removed. Another way to remove tonsils is called intracapsular (partial) tonsillectomy. This involves removing the inflamed tonsil tissue, but a small layer of tonsil tissue is left in place to protect the throat muscles. As a result, the recovery is much faster because most people notice less pain, don’t need to use as much pain medication, and find it easier to eat and drink.

Since some tonsil tissue remains, there’s a very slight chance that it can re-enlarge or become infected and require more tonsil surgery. However, the risk of this happening is very small.

Reviewed by: Steven P. Cook, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013