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12/11/2017 14:06 EST | Updated 12/11/2017 14:06 EST

Tonsil Stones Are Ugly But They're Mostly Harmless

Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell whether you have them.

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You can find a lot of gross things on the internet — from videos of people popping blackheads and pimples to photos of the icky things children do — so it can be hard to avoid getting through the day without wanting to dry heave when you're perusing the world wide web.

Well, we're here to gross you out a bit more. (But that's why you're here, right?)

Settle in, class, because we're going to teach you all about tonsil stones — small, pebble-like debris that sit on your tonsils and are mostly harmless, but can cause bad breath, a sore throat, or even trouble swallowing, according to Healthline.

Ready to see what they look like? A warning: the image is a bit graphic.

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So, what are tonsil stones?

Basically, when bacteria and other material like dead cells get trapped in your tonsils, they can turn into hard white or yellow "stones" that sit in the pockets of them. They can grow larger, and they often have an unpleasant smell. Sometimes you can see them if you look closely, but most of the time they're not visible.

How do you get them?

According to Healthline, you can get tonsil stones if you:

  • Have poor dental hygiene (yet another reason to brush and floss regularly)
  • Have large tonsils
  • Have chronic sinus issues
  • Have chronic tonsillitis (inflamed tonsils)

What are the symptoms?

Though you might not be able to see the stones, there are signs that can indicate that you do in fact have them, including red and irritated tonsils, bad breath, inflamed tonsils, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and ear pain.

However, WebMD notes that these symptoms are usually caused by larger stones — smaller stones generally don't cause any noticeable symptoms.

How can you treat them?

There are several at-home remedies you can try before you resort to medical intervention.

The Mayo Clinic recommends removing tonsil stones "either by gently pressing them out with a cotton swab or the back of your toothbrush, or by washing them out with a low-pressure water irrigator."

And aside from a toothbrush, don't stick any other sharp objects in your mouth to try to dislodge the stone, as you could swallow it, or hurt yourself in the process.

Should that fail, Healthline has several recommendations including gargling with salt water to try to dislodge the stones and energetic coughing to loosen them.

WebMD says that antibiotics are sometimes used to treat tonsil stones, although the site notes that it doesn't solve the problem that's causing them.

Should you have larger stones, sometimes they must be surgically removed.

However, if you find that you're regularly getting tonsil stones, you may need to get your tonsils removed at the recommendation of your physician, although this is usually a last resort after all other interventions have failed.

Called a tonsillectomy, the surgery to remove the tonsils can involve a scalpel, laser, or coblation device, and can lead to bleeding after surgery and throat pain, which will eventually go away after fluids and rest.

How can you prevent them?

It's simple: brush your teeth at least two times a day and clean the bacteria off the back of your tongue with your toothbrush before you rinse out your mouth. Good hygiene is paramount to a healthy mouth, so if you keep up these daily practices, you shouldn't have to worry about tonsil stones.

However, if you're a smoker, you have cause to be a bit more worried. According to some reports, smoking can cause oral cavities that can trigger tonsil stones (not to mention it's just plain bad for your health and causes bad breath), so quitting smoking can help reduce the chances that you'll get them.

Healthline also recommends gargling with salt water and drinking plenty of water every day.

Can they lead to more significant problems?

Most of the time tonsil stones are fairly harmless (if you think little stones stuck in your tonsils that give you bad breath are harmless), but, on the rare occasion, they can lead to complications such as an abscess, which is a deep infection of the tonsil.

Larger stones can also damage the tonsil tissue, which can lead to swelling, inflammation, and even infection.

Finally, it's important to note that if you get tonsil stones frequently, or notice that you have constant bad breath, irritated tonsils, or sore throat, you should consult with your doctor for further action.

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