Everybody's heard of tonsils. But not everyone knows what tonsils do or why they may need to be removed. Knowing the facts can help alleviate the fears of both parents and kids facing a tonsillectomy.
Tonsils and Tonsillitis
Tonsils are clumps of tissue on both sides of the throat that help fight infections.
Tonsils may swell when they become infected (tonsillitis). If you look down your child's throat with a flashlight, the tonsils may be red and swollen or have a white or yellow coating on them. Other symptoms of tonsillitis can include:
- sore throat
- pain or discomfort when swallowing
- swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
Enlarged tonsils without any symptoms are common among kids. Left alone, enlarged tonsils may eventually shrink on their own over the course of several years.
Don't rely on your own guesses, though — it can be hard to judge whether tonsils are infected. If you suspect tonsillitis, contact your doctor. Recurrent sore throats and infections should also be evaluated by the doctor, who may order a throat culture to check for strep throat.
Doctors might recommend surgical removal of the tonsils, called a tonsillectomy, for a child who has one or more of the following:
- persistent or recurrent tonsillitis or strep infections
- swollen tonsils that make it hard to breathe, particularly during sleep
- difficulty eating meat or chewy foods
- sleep difficulty that might be affecting the child's daily activities
- snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (when someone stops breathing for a few seconds at a time during sleep because enlarged tonsils are partially blocking the airway)
Surgery, no matter how common or simple the procedure, is often frightening for kids and parents. You can help prepare your child for surgery by talking about what to expect. During the tonsillectomy:
- Your child will receive general anesthesia. This means the surgery will be performed in an operating room so that an anesthesiologist can monitor your child. The anesthesiologist will also keep your child safely and comfortably asleep during the procedure.
- The operation will take about 20 minutes.
- The surgery is done through your child's open mouth — without any incisions (cuts) through skin.
Your child will wake up in the recovery area. Expect to spend several hours or perhaps overnight at the hospital. Many kids go home on the same day, though some may require observation overnight. In general, kids under 3 years old and those with significant sleep problems (like apnea) will usually stay overnight for observation.
Rarely, kids may show signs of bleeding, which would require a return to the operating room.
Depending on the surgical technique, the typical recuperation after a tonsillectomy may take up to a week or more. Expect some pain and discomfort due to the exposure of the throat muscles after the tonsils are removed. This can affect your child's ability to eat and drink and return to normal activities.
Intracapsular tonsillectomy, a variation on traditional tonsillectomy techniques, is surgery in which all involved tonsil tissue is removed but a small layer of tonsil tissue is left in place to protect the underlying throat muscles. As a result, the recovery is much faster because most kids experience less pain, don't need as much strong pain medication, and are more willing to eat and drink. Additionally, the risk of bleeding after surgery is significantly less than with a traditional tonsillectomy. Since residual tonsil tissue remains, there is a very slight chance that it can re-enlarge or become infected and require more tonsil surgery, but this occurs in less than 1% of children who've had intracapsular tonsillectomy.
Reviewed by: Steven P. Cook, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) The ASAA is dedicated to reducing injury, disability, and death from sleep apnea and to enhancing the well-being of those affected by this common disorder.|
|American College of Surgeons The website of the American College of Surgeons provides consumer information about common surgeries such as appendectomy.|
|Tonsillitis Tonsillitis, an inflammation of the tonsils caused by an infection, causes sore throat, fever, swollen glands in the neck, and trouble swallowing.|
|Enlarged Adenoids Often, tonsils and adenoids are surgically removed at the same time. Though some kids need surgery, enlarged adenoids are normal in others.|
|Strep Throat Strep throat is a common cause of sore throat in kids and teens. It usually requires treatment with antibiotics, but improves in a few days.|
|Anesthesia - What to Expect Here's a quick look at what may happen before, during, and after on the day of your child's operation or procedure.|
|Preparing Your Child for Anesthesia If your child needs to have an operation, you probably have plenty of questions, many of them about anesthesia.|
|Peritonsillar Abscess Older kids and teens with tonsilitis sometimes develop this painful abscess, a pus-filled tissue at the back of the mouth.|
|Are Kids With No Tonsils More Susceptible to Infections? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Can Tonsils Grow Back? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Preparing Your Child for Surgery Good preparation can help your child feel less anxious about getting surgery. Kids of all ages cope much better if they have an idea of what's going to happen and why.|
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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