Ideally, the tonsils capture and catch bacteria before they can go deeper into a person's oral cavity.
However, the tonsils have small folds, in which bacteria and food can collect to form small, stone-like substances that doctors call tonsil stones or tonsilloliths.
In this article, learn how to get rid of tonsil stones at home, as well as when to see a doctor.
1. Low-pressure irrigator
The regular use of a water irrigator can help prevent tonsil stones from developing.
Using a low-pressure water irrigator, such as a water flosser, can help loosen tonsil stones.
To do this, stand in front of a well-lit mirror and aim the water flosser toward the tonsil stones.
Be careful when freeing a tonsil stone, as it can fall toward the back of the throat and cause coughing. Do not try this on children, who could choke.
A person can also use a water flosser to regularly irrigate the tonsils to help prevent tonsil stones from forming.
Irrigators are available for purchase online.
2. Nonalcoholic mouthwash
Gently swishing a nonalcoholic mouthwash around the mouth can help loosen tonsil stones and reduce the amount of bacteria in the mouth.
Having less bacteria can help prevent tonsil stones from forming.
Nonalcoholic mouthwash is available in drugstores and online.
3. Saltwater gargle
A warm saltwater gargle may help loosen tonsil stones. A person can prepare this by adding half a teaspoon of salt to a cup of warm water. Gargle the liquid for 10–15 seconds.
Saltwater gargles may also help relieve a sore, scratchy throat.
4. Apple cider vinegar gargle
Gargling with diluted apple cider vinegar (ACV) may help break down the materials in the tonsil stones.
Mix 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with 1 cup of warm water and gargle. Doing so up to three times a day may help loosen the stones over time.
Risks of using ACV include the possibility of digestive problems and tooth decay. Find out more here.
5. Cotton swabs
Some people use cotton swabs to try to sweep tonsil stones from the back of the throat. This method has some risk of injury. A person should talk to their doctor before trying this, and never attempt to use this on a child.
Slightly dampen the swab, insert it toward the back of the throat, and sweep the stones away. Avoid touching the middle portion of the throat, as this can trigger the gag reflex.
Because a lot of blood vessels surround the tonsils, it is essential to try only a few sweeps with the cotton swab. If bleeding occurs, stop using the swab.
People can reduce the amount of excess bacteria in the mouth by brushing the tongue.
Some people also try to remove a tonsil stone with the back of a toothbrush. As with a cotton swab, there is a risk of injury with this method. Never use this method with children, as there is a danger of them choking.
Flip the brush over and use the nonbristled side to gently try to free the tonsil stone from the back of the throat.
Brushing the tongue as well as the teeth can help reduce the amount of excess bacteria in the mouth and prevent future tonsil stones from developing.
How long do tonsil stones last?
Tonsil stones usually dislodge themselves over time. A person may cough out a stone or feel it dislodge before swallowing it.
However, if a person has a persistent stone that seems to be getting larger, they may wish to talk to a doctor.
For an individual with frequent, irritating tonsil stones, a doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, which is the surgical removal of the tonsils.
While the surgery is common in children, adults may experience significant bleeding and recovery times.
A doctor usually only recommends a tonsillectomy if a person is experiencing significant pain, infection, or problematic halitosis as a result of their tonsil stones.
A person should speak to a doctor if they have questions.
When to see a doctor
Anyone who experiences ear pain or other symptoms alongside tonsil stones should see a doctor.
If a person is unable to remove a tonsil stone with the home remedies listed above, they should not try to force the stone out with a sharp object, as this can cause bleeding.
The area around the tonsils contains many blood vessels, so a person should not attempt to remove tonsil stones with toothpicks, pens, or safety pins, for example.
If a tonsil stone persists for several weeks, or if you have symptoms you feel are from tonsil stones, talk to a doctor. If you manage to remove a tonsil stone but still have pain, hoarseness, or bad breath, you should also see a doctor. A specialist called an ear, nose, and throat doctor usually deals with tonsil stones, but you can also start by speaking with your primary doctor.
People should seek medical attention for signs of tonsil infection, such as:
- difficulty swallowing
- enlarged tonsils that make it hard to breathe
- pain that radiates to the ears
- pus or white discharge from the tonsils
- severely enlarged tonsils
- bleeding in the tonsil area
- sleep-disordered breathing
A doctor should decide on the best course of action for a child with tonsil stones or inflamed tonsils. Trying to dislodge a tonsil stone in a child can cause choking.
A person may require antibiotics and rest to treat an active infection.
While tonsil stones are usually a minor irritation, they sometimes lead to infection and discomfort.
When this is the case, a person should talk to a doctor about treatment options.