Imagine you’re getting intimate with your significant other. You detect a hint of bad breath but it isn’t strong enough to ruin the mood, and then it happens.
A whopper of a tonsil stone get exchanged from one mouth to another in an explosion of putrid smells.
Did your partner just give you a chronic condition?!
Although tonsil stones are not typically a serious medical condition, they can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Tonsil stones often cause bad breath and are unsightly, and in severe cases, may affect your quality of life. However, you cannot “catch” tonsils stones from another person.
Tonsil stones aren’t contagious; however, the bacterial or viral antagonist of tonsillitis (which often leads to tonsil stones) can spread easily. Those who suffer from tonsil stones have often experienced recurrent or chronic tonsillitis in their past, whose pathogens are highly contagious.
If you have tonsil stones or are afraid they may be contagious, you need to know that you can’t be infected by someone who has them. If you wish to understand what a tonsil stone is and what you can do to prevent the condition, please read on.
Are Tonsil Stones Contagious?
Tonsil stones aren’t contagious and can’t be passed from person to person unless they present concurrently with the bacteria or virus that causes tonsillitis. People with chronic inflammation in their tonsils, particularly recurrent bouts of tonsillitis, are more likely to experience tonsil stones.
Tonsillitis is a human body’s inflammatory response caused by several common viruses and bacteria. These bacteria include Streptococcal bacteria, which also causes strep throat.
The leading cause of bacterial tonsillitis is from group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal infection (GABHS.) Doctors often abbreviate this to Group A (GA) strep. GA strep is contagious and is spread by:
- Contact with the saliva or mucus of an infected person by sharing foodstuffs or kissing
- Breathing in droplets of an infected carrier in the form of coughing or sneezing (as the droplets may suspend in the air)
Common colds and influenza are often causes of tonsillitis and are spread via the saliva and mucus of infected persons. The virus can live on objects for hours, helping them to spread easily in crowded workplaces and schools.
According to the NHS, the main difference between viral and bacterial tonsillitis is that the bacterial version is generally more severe. Bacterial tonsillitis is also more often accompanied by bad breath.
What Are Tonsil Stones?
Tonsil stones or tonsillitis are the calcified (hardened) pockets of debris that collect in the crevasses of the tonsils. This debris includes mucus, saliva, food particles, and dead cells.
When the debris collects inside the crevice or ‘crypt,’ it attracts fungal and bacterial activity, producing volatile sulfur compounds that lead to bad breath and discomfort.
In severe cases, tonsil stones may cause pain in the neck and ears, difficulty swallowing, and a persistent cough. Tonsil stones have a higher incidence in patients who suffer from recurrent or chronic tonsillitis.
Common Causes of Tonsil Stones
People who suffer from chronic or recurrent tonsillitis are more prone to developing tonsil stones. People with naturally deep tonsil crevasses who suffer from chronic sinus and post-nasal drip are also more susceptible to tonsilliths. The existence of a biofilm in the affected tonsil area also plays a part in the stone formation.
Modern clinical studies indicate that tonsil stones are more than a static collection of debris but are an example of a living biofilm. Biofilms are a live community of microorganisms that adhere (in this case) to the surface of a living organism) and arrange themselves in a protective, mutually dependent system.
In the case of tonsil stones, this protects the microorganisms from the actions of antibiotics and the host’s natural defenses and increases the chance of reinfection. The biofilm theory also explains why tonsil stones, while not a serious medical concern, are persistent and hard to eradicate.
Other factors that may lead to tonsil stones include:
- Poor oral hygiene, which may lead to the accumulation of debris and bacteria in the tonsils.
- Dry mouth conditions, such as the effects of medication, alcohol, or smoking, play a role in stone formation.
- Diets that are high in dairy and sugar.
What Are the Symptoms of Tonsil Stones?
Tonsil stones may often hide under or behind your tonsil tissue, and you may not be able to see them with your naked eye. Often sufferers only discover they have this condition in radiographs during medical procedures, or when a significant other complains about persistent bad breath.
Common symptoms of tonsil stone include:
- White/yellowish protrusion in your tonsil tissue
- A sensation of something lodged in the back of your throat when you swallow
- Halitosis or chronic bad breath caused by bacteria releasing volatile sulfur compounds
- Enlarged or swollen tonsils
Tonsil stones can also cause you to experience persistent throat and ear pain from shared nerve pathways. In severe cases, you may also experience difficulty swallowing.
How Can I Treat Tonsil Stones?
You may treat tonsil stones at home by gently manipulating the affected area with a swab to dislodge them if they’re not severe. Alternatively, I recommend tonsil stone removal tools like an oral irrigator under low pressure to flush your tonsils of debris and stones. Regularly gargling with hydrogen peroxide or salt water helps, too.
Alternatively, in severe cases, you have several surgical options to treat persistent stones that are causing inflammation and discomfort. These surgical options include:
A tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure that removes your tonsils completely. This operation is riskier for adults than children and involves a very painful recovery time of two to three weeks. The surgery also carries risks of bleeding and infection.
Tonsillectomy is a relatively high-risk option for a low-risk condition. You should only consider it if tonsilloliths are adversely affecting your life.
Laser Tonsil Cryptolysis
Laser tonsil ablation uses carbon dioxide lasers to reduce the surface area of the tonsils by resurfacing the area. The process smooths the surface of the tonsils and flattens the crypts and crevices where debris may collect and form tonsil stones. This surgery requires no general anesthetic and minimal bleeding and has a quick recovery time.
Coblation Tonsil Cryptolysis
Coblation tonsil cryptolysis uses radiofrequency energy with saline to create a plasma field. Unlike laser surgery, surgeons conduct the procedure at low temperatures with a more precise pinpointing of affected tonsil areas. The process is less invasive than laser surgery and protects the surrounding tonsil tissue from damage during the operation procedure.
How To Prevent Tonsil Stones
If your tonsil stones aren’t severe or overly large, there are ways to manage the condition yourself. Although the condition is uncomfortable, you can often find ways to ease the prevalence and treat tonsil stones without medical assistance. The most important prevention and management strategies include the following.
As dry mouth conditions enhance debris accumulation, it’s essential to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. The drinking action flushes away the areas where debris might accumulate and reduces the risk of debris collecting in the tonsil crypts. Gargling with warm salt water or an alcohol-free mouthwash with chlorhexidine reduces microbial action and dislodges debris particles.
Practice Good Oral Hygiene
It’s best to brush your teeth twice a day and floss between them to prevent an accumulation of debris such as food particles. Particles collected in the tonsil cavities or crypt attract bacterial and viral activity that leads to tonsil stones.
A tongue scraper or tongue brushing is also a suitable method for oral hygiene to prevent tonsil stones. Your tongue may be a breeding ground for bacteria, especially at the back of the tongue closer to your tonsils.
Implement Dietary Restrictions
There are particular lifestyle and dietary changes that may improve your chance of preventing the recurrence of tonsil stones. These restrictions include:
- Limiting the sugar content of your diet decreases bacterial growth in your tonsil crypts.
- Avoid alcohol as it lowers the salivary flow rate and the pH value, which may affect oral health.
- Limit your dairy intake. Dairy thickens mucus and contains calcium which promotes tonsil stone formation.
- Avoid smoking as it affects your oral health (as well as your general health.)
Check out my article on dieting tips for tonsil stones.
Although tonsil stones aren’t contagious, you should protect yourself from tonsillitis if you can. By following a strict oral hygiene routine and changing your diet, you may prevent developing a tonsil stone or prevent its recurrence.
However, If you’re suffering from inflammation or pain, you should always consult a medical professional. For more info on living life tonsil stone free, check out the rest of my blog for other topics on the subject.