What in the World Are Tonsil Stones?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 
Tonsil stones are really no big deal but they can cause a sore throat and bad breath. gritsalak karalak/Shutterstock/HowStuffWorks

Those with strong stomachs may have watched the videos making the rounds of people who have tonsil stones. What are tonsil stones you ask? They're smelly, little white globs of who knows what that get built up in the, well, pockets of tonsils. Those with weaker stomachs can skip the videos and head right for the info below. And those with maybe a little tendency toward hypochondria will be glad to know tonsil stones are probably no big deal, even if they're gross.

Tonsil stones may be one of the least creatively named bits of body oddity ever. The scientific name is "tonsilloliths" or sometimes "tonsilliths." The "tonsil" part is obvious, and "lith" means "stone," like in "paleolithic."


Your tonsils are in the back of your mouth, at the entrance to your throat. There's one on both sides to help catch bacteria and viruses. Your tonsils produce white blood cells and antibodies to help prevent infections, and they're covered in mucus. They also have crevices called crypts, and sometimes food — or even leftover white blood cells — can get trapped in there.

When debris gets caught in the crypts — which sounds way creepier than it is — whitish calcium deposits can form. Et voilà! Tonsil stones.

Most of the time, you won't even notice if you have tonsil stones. They stay small, and they don't usually hurt. You may have bad breath, but according to a study published in 2014 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology, only 3 percent of bad breath cases are due to tonsils. You might feel a "foreign body sensation," which means you know there's something stuck in your throat, but you don't know what it is and can't really see it.

It's easy enough to prevent tonsil stones. Brushing your teeth and tongue usually does the trick. But if you do end up with tonsil stones — and a lot of people do — you can usually rinse them away by gargling with water, mouthwash, saltwater, or hydrogen peroxide and water. You can be a little more aggressive about it if you have a water pick.

If they're really bothering you, you can try working them out with the back of your tongue. You can even try using your toothbrush or a cotton swab to free them from your tonsils. Beware your gag reflex if you try this, though sword swallowers will probably be fine.

When tonsil stones are very large, painful, recurring or otherwise a complete nuisance, you can have your tonsils removed. Or you can try something called tonsil cryptolysis, where a doctor uses laser or a wand to scar the tonsil crypts so it's harder for stones to form.