Skip to main content

Tonsils: Facts, Function & Treatment

The tonsils are in the back of the throat. Strep throat and tonsillitis can lead to inflammation. (Image credit: solar22/Shutterstock)

Tonsils are small organs in the back of the throat. As part of the lymphatic system, they play an important role in the health of the body. Tonsils were once thought to be a useless part made obsolete by evolution. When bothered by an infection, doctors once prescribed the removal of the tonsils through a tonsillectomy. These small organs are actually quite useful, though. 

Size and location

Technically, there are three sets of tonsils in the body: the pharyngeal tonsils, commonly known as adenoids, the palatine tonsils and the lingual tonsils, which are lymphatic tissue on the surface tissue of the base of the tongue, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. When people refer to tonsils, though, they are usually talking about the palatine tonsils. These tonsils are oval, pea-sized clusters of lymph cells in the pharynx at the opening of either side of the throat. Though they may seem large in children, the size of the tonsils tends to get smaller when a person becomes an adult. 


Though small and seemingly useless, tonsils have several uses. The tonsils prevent foreign objects from slipping into the lungs. Think of them as goalies for the throat. They also filter bacteria and viruses. On top of all that, they produce white blood cells and antibodies, according to the Mayo Clinic

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, these bumps on the back of the throat are the "first line of defense as part of the immune system." For example, tonsils sample bacteria and viruses entering the body through the mouth or nose and flush them using lymph. Lymph is a clear and colorless fluid; the name comes from the Latin word lympha, which means "connected to water," according to the National Lymphadema Network. 

Problems, diseases and treatment

Often, the most common problem with the tonsils is inflammation, called tonsillitis. Inflammation can be treated with at-home cures such throat lozenges, gargling salt water, drinking plenty of fluids or taking over-the-counter pain killers. Tonsillitis is most common in children over two, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bacterial tonsillitis may be treated with antibiotics from a medical professional.

Strep throat happens when the tonsils are infected by bacteria called Streptococcus, usually classified by two different strains, A and B. Strep is usually a problem that affects children, though adults can get strep throat, too. 

During this infection, the tonsils are usually very inflamed, and the person may have white pustules on their tonsils, along with white, stringy pus gathering in the throat. If strep goes untreated, it can cause scarlet fever impetigo, cellulitis, toxic shock syndrome and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease), according to the National Institutes of Health. Rheumatic fever may also occur from an untreated strep infection.

"The inflammatory process can occur soon after a strep infection or weeks later. Many patients don't remember having the initial sore throat. Rheumatic fever can be mild or very serious causing permanent damage to the heart," Dr. Stacey Silvers of the Madison Skin and Laser Center in New York, told Live Science.

The treatment for strep is fairly simple. Typically, doctors will prescribe antibiotics, such as Augmentin, to rid the body of the bacteria. 

Tonsil stones are a typical affliction of the throat area, as well. This happens when debris gets caught in the groves of the tonsils. Then, white blood cells attack the debris, creating a rock-like stone. Usually, tonsil stones can be removed with brushing, a water pick or by a dentist.

"A last resort cure of this problem is tonsillectomy. However, this surgery carries risks of anesthesia, pain and bleeding, as well as other risks, thus a decision of this type must be balanced by a risk/benefit discussion," said Dr. Erich P. Voigt, an associate professor of otolaryngology at NYU-Langone Medical Center.

Additional resources

Alina Bradford
Alina Bradford
Alina Bradford is a contributing writer for Live Science. Over the past 16 years, Alina has covered everything from Ebola to androids while writing health, science and tech articles for major publications. She has multiple health, safety and lifesaving certifications from Oklahoma State University. Alina's goal in life is to try as many experiences as possible. To date, she has been a volunteer firefighter, a dispatcher, substitute teacher, artist, janitor, children's book author, pizza maker, event coordinator and much more.