5 Myths and Facts about Tonsil Removal in Children and Teens
By Scott R. Schaffer, MD, FACS, Virtua Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Surgeon
Many adults today remember having their tonsils removed as kids and then getting to eat all the ice cream and Jell-O they wanted afterward. But many of the same adults—who are now parents of young children or teens—may not be aware of how much the procedure has changed. And, they may even believe the common misperception that doctors no longer remove tonsils.
Learn more about this common myth and others, and see how tonsil removal techniques have advanced and improved over the years.
What are tonsils and what do they do?
The tonsils are located on either side of the back of the throat. Although they may appear to be nothing more than small pads of tissue, they play an important role as part of your child’s immune system during the first year of life.
After your child reaches age 12-18 months, other tissues begin to take over the tonsils’ immune functions. Because they’re no longer required to help fight infection, the tonsils usually shrink over time. That’s why they can be safely removed during a procedure called a tonsillectomy, if necessary.
What problems can tonsils cause?
In some children, the tonsils never shrink. As a result, these children are more likely to develop an infection in the tonsils called tonsillitis. Children also are more likely to develop strep throat, which is a type of bacterial infection that can affect the tonsils.
Enlarged tonsils can cause airway obstruction—blocking the airflow through the back of the throat. Obstruction can cause problems such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Mouth breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Difficulty breathing, especially during exercise
- Growth problems, including obesity and being underweight
- Behavior problems and fatigue due to lack of restful sleep
Although removing your child’s tonsils can help to resolve these problems, tonsil removal may not resolve problems that are caused by other health issues. For example, removing your child’s tonsils should resolve snoring, but only if obesity or genetic disorders aren’t actually causing the problem.
What are some common myths about tonsil removal?
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard a few myths about tonsillectomies for children and teens. Here are a few of the most common tonsillectomy myths, as well as the facts about the procedure:
Myth: Doctors no longer perform tonsillectomies for children and teens.
Fact: Tonsillectomies are still a common procedure for children and teens.
Tonsil removal is one of the most common surgeries performed on children and teens, but the reasons for performing it have changed over the years. Years ago, doctors performed tonsillectomies primarily to treat chronic inflammation and infections of the tonsils, called tonsillitis. Although doctors still perform tonsillectomies to treat chronic tonsillitis, they now perform more tonsillectomies to treat airway obstruction.
Myth: Tonsil removal causes a severe sore throat.
Fact: New tonsil removal techniques minimize pain, reduce risks and improve recovery time.
Your tonsils are attached to your throat muscles. Years ago, doctors used surgical techniques that caused the throat muscles to become irritated and sore after tonsil removal.
Today’s ear, nose and throat surgeons use new techniques that allow them to completely remove the tonsils while minimizing irritation to your child’s throat muscles and decreasing the risk of bleeding and other complications. As a result, many children only experience a mild sore throat after the procedure. This minor pain is usually alleviated by cold foods and drinks (ice pops, ice water, apple sauce, milkshakes), a mix of ibuprofen and acetaminophen, and distracting activities that take the mind off of the sore throat.
Tonsillectomy usually is an outpatient procedure and most children are back to normal in a week.
However, children who have acid reflux that affects their throat may experience more pain than normal after a tonsillectomy. Starting acid reflux treatment before your child’s tonsillectomy and continuing it during recovery can help.
Myth: If you have a tonsillectomy, you can’t get strep throat.
Fact: Although it’s rare, it’s still possible to get strep throat after a tonsillectomy.
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that commonly occurs in the tonsils. However, in rare cases, strep throat can affect other immune tissues in the throat.
Myth: Recovery after tonsillectomy is more painful as you get older.
Fact: Age doesn’t affect the amount of pain you experience after a tonsillectomy.
The amount of pain your child experiences after a tonsillectomy is unrelated to age. Rather, it depends upon the surgical technique and the skill of your surgeon.
In fact, being older can be an advantage during a tonsillectomy. That’s because older children have larger mouths—and the larger your child’s mouth, the easier it is for the surgeon to reach his or her tonsils. This can result in a shorter procedure.
Myth: You should avoid giving your child solid or crunchy foods after a tonsillectomy.
Fact: There are no restrictions on the foods your child can eat after a tonsillectomy.
After a tonsillectomy, children heal the same regardless of whether they eat solid, crunchy or soft foods. Although your child’s throat may be a little sore at first, most children begin eating and drinking normally again a few days after the procedure.
Children also can drink whatever beverages taste and feel good to them, as long as they drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated is important because researchers believe that tonsillectomy patients who are well-hydrated have a lower risk of developing bleeding problems, a rare complication that can occur a week after the procedure.
Seeing a qualified ear, nose and throat surgeon who’s experienced in modern tonsillectomy techniques is one of the most important things you can do to help your child have a smooth procedure and recovery.
Call 1-888-847-8823 to schedule a consultation with a Virtua board-certified ear, nose and throat specialist.
Updated July 12, 2018