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Why Do We Have Tonsils?

One study found that children who had chronically infected tonsils removed generally slept better.
Adults with chronic tonsillitis may have problems with snoring.
A doctor may recommend tonsil removal if tonsils are infected on a regular basis.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2014
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Why we have tonsils is an excellent question which has not been adequately answered by the medical community. This is not for lack of trying or research. Theoretically, they should promote better health, but for some, this is not always the case.

Tonsils are the two bumps or rounds of tissue located in the back of the throat, and are made up of what is called lymphoid tissue. Lymphoid tissue produces lymphocytes — white blood cells that help fight infections. Traditionally, doctors would consider the production of lymphocytes a good thing, since it would seem to help people fight off illness with greater ease.

Medical experts summarize that tonsils may have once been more useful than they are now, and they may be more effective against certain kinds of infections — for example, infections by parasitic agents. Yet especially in children, this tissue can’t handle the barrage of viral exposures common in suburban and urban life. Instead of helping the body fight infection, tonsils can swell and begin to obstruct breathing. Alternately, some children appear to have chronic infections as a result of trying to fight off illnesses.

From the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s, doctors simply removed tonsils that appeared enlarged. It was almost standard for most children to have them removed in a procedure called a tonsillectomy. This led to a backlash of concern about whether the surgery was necessary, resulting in a reduction in operations from the 1970s onward.

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After 20 years of not routinely performing tonsillectomies, doctors began to find that children with chronically infected tonsils had some recurring problems. The tissue's impact on breathing was especially interesting. Some studies looked at how children who snored were often classed as having behavioral problems in school or considered ADHD. When tonsils were removed, these children generally slept better and many of them behaved better in school and clearly were not ADHD.

These studies suggested that by not performing tonsillectomies, doctors were actually doing a disservice to some children who truly would benefit from the procedure. Tonsillectomies have become a more acceptable procedure, especially for those children with chronically enlarged tonsils. In most cases, removal of the tissue benefit the health of children instead of making them more susceptible to illness.

This suggests that some children really don’t need tonsils, and that they are perhaps a “leftover” evolutionary enhancement that is not practical to modern day. Children with tonsillectomies generally have fewer instead of more illnesses. Chronic tonsil infection (tonsillitis) might actually weaken the body, making children predisposed to getting more illnesses.

For other people with tonsils, they may not pose any problem. If they don’t get infected frequently, they may perhaps provide a little immunity boost in fighting off illnesses. This is actually not proven, since many other areas of the body also create lymphocytes to fight infection. From years of studying tonsils, most doctors conclude that they may be beneficial to some and detrimental to others. Therefore, we may not all need them.

Whether tonsils provide additional immunity in adulthood is also hard to determine. Research on people who still have them as opposed to those who don’t hasn’t clearly defined whether having this tissue keeps people healthier as they age. Tonsils tend shrink in size as children hit their teens, but adults can still have chronic tonsillitis and may have snoring or sleep problems when they are enlarged. Many adults who missed the “standard” tonsillectomy phase of medicine now have sought out tonsillectomies to reduce sleep problems or chronic throat infections.

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tdeamicis
Post 20

Tonsils are still useful. They are the only organ in your body able to fight against polio (not the DDT issue we had back when the polio vaccine was given). Those who got the live polio vaccine, and then got their tonsils removed, then got polio from the live vaccine. Since they removed the one organ holding polio back, polio was then able to spread.

anon342091
Post 19

I found a mass on my tonsil. It looks like it is not normal. I don't know and I'm afraid to see a doctor for this.

anon331039
Post 18

I just got strep throat on Easter weekend and I felt just fine. I could literally go run around outside! It was so weird.

anon292315
Post 17

Re Weight Gain: Nine times out of ten swollen tonsils = antibiotics. Antibiotics kill many good forms of bacteria in the gut. The loss of bacteria contributes to weight gain because we are not processing our food efficiently without that bacteria.

After the surgery, high dose antibiotics are prescribed due to the open wound in the throat where the tonsils used to be. This perpetuates the bacteria loss and increases the likelihood of obesity.

anon256483
Post 16

"Leftover evolutionary enhancement"? You're kidding, right?

anon104573
Post 15

@anon30887: I too have had to deal with tonsil stones for the past 10 years. they are absolutely disgusting. not only that, I think my tonsils are contributing to my sleep apnea (small mouth + large tonsils = no air). how long have you been looking to get them taken out? because I really want these things out. I'm pretty sure they're doing nothing good.

anon100070
Post 14

I'd really like to know if a teen tonsillectomy leads to weight gain months or years later? I've read a lot online about how children gain weight after a tonsillectomy, but don't know if this pertains to teens? I don't want my daughter to have to deal with weight issues just because of a decision to get a tonsillectomy?

anon87191
Post 13

I am 14 years old and just got my tonsils pulled out today. I found this website and it has some really good info. I am on around the clock pain meds and before I got them pulled,I was having a lot of problems breathing.

I am really glad we did this today (the day after I graduate middle school) so I will be able to do sports and stuff during summer break. Does anyone have some advice for me, or any info (like when the pain will wear off). Thanks.

anon83298
Post 12

i hadn't have tonsillitis for two years now. but since a child I've had it frequently and each time i did it was hell to cure it. Antibiotics had no effect at all.

At this rate i think i might become immune to the vaccine that cures me itself! So I'm thinking why not remove them once and for all and avoid getting tonsillitis for the rest of my life and presumably, I'll even avoid a lot of other illnesses through this procedure, so exactly why do we even have them? It's not proven we need them -- they're just here to provide a little immunity boost?

all this trouble for a tiny boost? i don't think its worth it at all. if it detected something serious like cancer or something but no, they're here to fight off a cold? heck almost anyone can fight off a cold easily.

anon69744
Post 11

Swollen tonsils affect the sound of your voice. As a singing teacher, I can detect the condition just by listening.

Imagine stuffing cotton balls in the back of your mouth and trying to speak or sing. The absorption of sound severely limits resonance. Some parents miss the condition because they're used to hearing their child speak a certain way.

It's not always easy to convince them that the sound is less than optimum. Of course, the swelling has a source and a medical practitioner must be consulted.

My role is to bring the condition to the attention of the family.

anon64069
Post 10

@ anon30887: Its probably because insurance wouldn't pay for it and the doctors want to get paid.

I got strep three times in four months and the doctor was afraid the insurance would turn down the procedure.

it sucked getting them out, but the weight loss was phenomenal. I lost 10 pounds in about two weeks and it has given me the boost i needed to get the rest of the weight off that I needed to. (30 pounds in all!)

helloall
Post 9

I am 15 and I just found out I don't have tonsils and I never got them removed?

anon42882
Post 7

I had my tonsils taken out when I was 17 due to several cases of tonsillitis. I haven't had a sore throat since then. I just wish the problems would have happened when I was younger. It took two weeks to eat a good meal and not just jello and babyfood.

anon37687
Post 6

We need tonsils as a part of our immune system.

anon37496
Post 5

I'm now 44. From when I ws born, I had tonsilitis tween 4 - 8 times a year, depending on where I lived.

When I was 8, I had my tonsils removed, and have had probably 1 or 2 "sore throat" problems in any given year since their removal, and only once had to have anti-biotics for an infected throat.

Best option for me, and I rarely get ill with anything.

anon30887
Post 4

I've had tonsil stones for the last 10 years. I thought it was food stuck in my throat at first.

I'm 26 and I've been to a few doctors over the years, and each one says I don't need my tonsils out, but I want them out! Why wont any doctors want to take out my tonsils?

- very annoyed

spencers
Post 3

I have strep again, i get it about 2-3 times a year, when i was a child- i'm 28 now, i got it 10 times in one year, my mother still does not believe in having them out, i'm grown and am looking into getting them taken out, my friend have said that you have to convince the drs to take them out. one friend had to take her child to 9 diff. dr's to find one to take her son's out. and he was always sick with strep --why is this?

WGwriter
Post 2

Hi Eggybred -- Great question! Usually if a surgery is elective (a choice and not an emergency), there are a couple of reasons why the doctor will wait until summer. First, it doesn't interfere with school. Second, there are fewer contagious viruses (like the yearly flu) to be caught in hospitals during the summer months. Another issue may simply be scheduling on the doctor's part. You can always look around for another ENT to do it sooner, but there may be other reasons. I always think if you have questions the surgeon hasn't answered (and I have son that's been through a few surgeries) it's a good idea to just call the doctor and ask why. It may take the doctor a few days to return your call, but it's a good rule of thumb to make sure a physician answers all your questions about a procedure (minor or major) so you feel you have all the information you need, and feel comfortable about what will occur.

eggybred
Post 1

wish i'd found this site last year! my daughter had a cycle of earache, snoring and irregular breathing and a constant runny nose, she has concentration problems at nursery and her speech is behind. her tonsils swell like golf balls yet she is well in her self, if a little hyper and is on her 4th round of antibiotics..two weeks this time, but at least now she is been referred to ENT at the hospital.

but one question, why did the doctor say we had to wait till summer!!!?

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