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What Are Tonsils Good For?
Tonsils are no longer routinely removed, even in cases of tonsillitis.
Credit: Alexander Raths /

Getting your tonsils removed used to be a common childhood ritual — and a great excuse to eat ice cream.

But what do tonsils do? It turns out that tonsils play an important role in preventing infections.

Tonsils are twin round lumps sitting in the back of the throat, while adenoids – which, like tonsils, are part of the lymphatic system – sit behind the nose and the roof of the mouth.

Together, tonsils and adenoids prevent infection by stopping germs from entering through the mouth and nose.

In tonsillitis, the tonsils become infected, swelling up and becoming sore. Tonsillitis can lead to problems including headaches, difficulty swallowing and bad breath. In rare cases, the condition can progress to rheumatic fever.

Adenoid infection can lead to complications ranging from breathing trouble to ear infections.

The bacterium that usually causes tonsillitis, according to the Mayo Clinic, is Streptococcus pyogenes. It's the same bacterium that leads to strep throat.

In children who haven't reached puberty, the tonsils' immune system is much more active than in adults. This explains why kids have tonsillitis more frequently than adults.

Also, children have immune systems that are still developing, which leaves them vulnerable to infection as they interact with other people.

Doctors today try to treat tonsillitis through antibiotics, rather than removing the tonsils completely. This helps the body fight infections in adulthood.

If tonsillitis happens frequently or becomes serious, however, physicians will remove the tonsils.

Tonsils may also be taken out if the patient experiences sleep apnea (breathing pauses while sleeping) or cannot adequately swallow meats or other chewy foods. Additionally, doctors may recommend their removal if antibiotics fail to improve tonsillitis.

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