Tonsils and Adenoids: First Line of Defense

Your immune system’s first line of defense from infections is the tonsils and adenoids. They sample viruses and bacteria that enter through the mouth or nose, and so can easily become infected. While usually tonsils and adenoids are helpful in preventing more serious conditions, at times their close contact with these agents can lead to airway obstruction or recurring bacterial infections.

What are they?

Similar to the lymph nodes found in the neck, groin, and armpits, tonsils are found in the back of the throat (two round lumps), and adenoids are located behind the nose and the roof of the mouth, high in the throat. The adenoids are not visible through the nose or mouth without special instruments.

What problems can occur?

Recurring infections of the nose and throat, and significant enlargement that causes nasal or breathing/swallowing obstruction are the two most frequent issues that effect tonsils and adenoids.

Other issues which can effect adenoids and tonsils are abscesses that form around the tonsils, infections of small pockets within the tonsils that form foul-smelling white deposits, and chronic tonsillitis. Cancers of the tonsil are uncommon, but require aggressive treatments and an early diagnosis.

When should I see my ENT?

See your doctor if you or your child experience the symptoms commonly associated with infected or enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

If you or your child’s adenoids are enlarged, breathing through the nose may be difficult. If both the tonsils and adenoids are enlarged, breathing during sleep may be difficult as well. Other signs of adenoid or tonsil enlargement are:

  • Breathing through the mouth instead of the nose
  • Nose sounds blocked when patient speaks
  • Chronic runny nose
  • Noisy breathing during the day
  • Recurring ear infections
  • Snoring
  • Restless sleep, pauses in breathing for a few seconds while sleeping (may also indicate sleep apnea)

What’s the treatment?

For an individual infection of the tonsils or adenoids, (especially if caused by streptococcus) the first course of action is usually antibiotics. If these infections are recurrent despite antibiotic therapy, or if there is significant difficulty breathing from enlarged tonsils or adenoids, removal of the tonsils (tonsillectomy) and/or adenoids (adenoidectomy) may be your doctor’s recommendation.

If chronic infections of the adenoids are not treated, other areas, such as the Eustachian tube, may be affected. This can result in frequent ear infections and a buildup of fluid in the middle ear which can lead to a temporary loss of hearing. In adults, the possibility of cancer or a tumor could result in the removal of the tonsils or adenoids. For some patients, such as those with infectious mononucleosis, severe enlargement of these glands can obstruct the airway; for these patients, a steroid treatment is often helpful.

If you suspect you or your child may have issues with your tonsils of adenoids, don’t hesitate to come see us at Alexandria Otolaryngology Associates.