A tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the tonsils. Tonsils are two small glands located in the back of your throat. Tonsils house white blood cells to help you fight infection, but sometimes the tonsils themselves become infected.
Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils that can make your tonsils swell and give you a sore throat. Frequent episodes of tonsillitis might be a reason you need to have a tonsillectomy. Other symptoms of tonsillitis include fever, trouble swallowing, and swollen glands around your neck. Your doctor may notice that your throat is red and your tonsils are covered in a whitish or yellow coating. Sometimes, the swelling can go away on its own. In other cases, antibiotics or a tonsillectomy might be necessary.
A tonsillectomy can also be a treatment for breathing problems, like heavy snoring and sleep apnea.
A tonsillectomy is used to treat:
- Recurring, chronic or severe tonsillitis
- Complications of enlarged tonsils
- Bleeding of the tonsils
- Other rare diseases of the tonsils
Tonsillectomy, like other surgeries, has certain risks:
Reactions to anesthetics. Medication to make you sleep during surgery often causes minor, short-term problems, such as headache, nausea, vomiting or muscle soreness. Serious, long-term problems are rare, though general anesthesia is not without the risk of death.
Swelling. Swelling of the tongue and soft roof of the mouth (soft palate) can cause breathing problems, particularly during the first few hours after the procedure.
Bleeding during surgery. In rare cases, severe bleeding occurs during surgery and requires additional treatment and a longer hospital stay.
Bleeding during healing. Bleeding can occur during the healing process, particularly if the scab from the wound is dislodged too soon.
Infection. Rarely, surgery can lead to an infection that requires further treatment.
When to get surgery
Most professional guidelines do not recommend a tonsillectomy for infections unless you have had five to seven of them in one year. However your surgeon will consider the severity of those infections and how responsive you are to treatment.
While removing the tonsils is usually helpful for treating chronic infections it is not always 100 percent effective. It is still possible to get strep throat or a similar infection after having your tonsils removed. Nevertheless, the majority of people either stop having infections or don't have as many. If you do get an infection after a tonsillectomy, the infection is usually not as severe as it would have been before the surgery. Reducing the frequency of infection may also decrease your risk from complications of strep throat.
The frequency of tonsillectomies in the United States has increased as doctors understanding of the dangers of sleep apnea is better understood. In fact, surgeons are more likely to recommend removing the tonsils if you have sleep apnea than if you have chronic tonsillitis alone. Removing swollen tonsils has been found to be very effective in treating and curing this form of sleep apnea. However, surgery should only be considered when other, less invasive forms of medical treatment are not tolerated or are ineffective.
While less common, there are other reasons your doctor may recommend removing your tonsils, including: peritonsilar abscesses, tonsil cancer and enlarged tonsils that are causing teeth problems. Enlarged tonsils that are causing difficulty with swallowing or breathing and have not responded to other treatments should be removed as soon as possible.