What Are Tonsil Stones?

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 07.02.15
  • NOVA

If you’ve got white lumps in your throat, they could be tonsil stones or “tonsilloliths.” Find out what causes them and how to get rid of them in this episode of Gross Science.

Running Time: 02:24


What Are Tonsil Stones?

Posted: July 2, 2015

I’m about to show you one of the most revolting pieces of footage I’ve ever seen. You’ve been warned.

Alright, I know that was deeply horrifying, so let me explain. What I just showed you was called a “tonsil stone,” or a “tonsillolith.”  And they’re really common. In fact, you might have them in your mouth right now.

I’m Anna Rothschild, and this is Gross Science.

Tonsil stones often occur if you’ve had repeated bouts of tonsillitis, or if you just have large-ish tonsils with lots of nooks and crannies. You might not even know you have them, cause they can grow behind the tonsil where you can’t see them.

There aren’t great estimates for how many people have tonsil stones. But in one small study of 150 CT scans of people’s heads, about 24% showed signs of them. Though I’ve seen other studies with higher and lower numbers, as well.

There’s some debate about how exactly they form, but what we know is that dead cells, mucus, and food get trapped in the crevices of the tonsil and harden, or “calcify.”

Most of the time, the stones are so small that they don’t pose a problem. But when they’re larger they can cause sore throats, ear pain, and really bad breath. That’s because bacteria and other microbes will feast on the globs of organic matter, and the sulfurous waste products they release give off a deeply unpleasant scent.

If you have tonsil stones and they bother you, some people recommend gargling with salt water or other special mouthwashes, flushing them out with a water pick, or popping them out with something soft like your finger or a cotton swab. And if the problem gets really severe, your doctor might recommend a tonsillectomy or procedure to smooth out the tonsils.

On a personal note, I actually know what having tonsil stones is like. A bunch of years ago I kept coming down with tonsillitis, and along with it I developed some small tonsil stones. Because I’m me, I was kinda just fascinated by the whole thing. But, I was totally relieved when they went away.




Host, Animator, Editor
Anna Rothschild
Illustrator, DP, Sound
Rachel Becker
Many thanks to Dr. Chris Chang.
Jaunty Walk A
Music Provided by APM


1 big hidden tonsil stone (march 2015)
Courtesy ihatemytonsils
Swollen tonsils
Flickr/John Campbell
Tonsillolith in mouth
Wikimedia Commons/Glacko2021
Tonsil stone on finger
The removed tonsils of our patient
© 2008 Katotomichelakis et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.


(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Slide Whistle Down 01
Slide Whistle Down Fast
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios


(main image: Mouth)
©WGBH Educational Foundation 2015


Want more info?

NYTimes on tonsil stones:

Dr. Christopher Chang on tonsil stones:

Study of CT scans:

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