Few people in Portland give their tonsils much thought, unless they develop an infection. Like the appendix, they were once believed to be useless, but our tonsils actually play a key role in defending the body from germs and bacteria.
Function of the Tonsils
The tonsils are a pair of small, soft lymphatic tissues in the back of the throat. They aid the immune system in protecting the body from disease and infection. Tonsils are rarely a concern past childhood, as they become smaller with age. It’s no wonder we rarely pay them much mind!
These organs are actually quite fascinating, though. Here are some essential facts about tonsils that might help spark a newfound appreciation for the important role they play in our health.
- There are actually four kinds of tonsils. We usually use the term “tonsils” to refer to the palatine tonsils located in the back of the throat. But there are other sets of tonsils, as well; these include the lingual tonsil at the base of the tongue, tubal tonsils and adenoid tonsils (usually shortened to adenoids). Together, they make up the Waldeyer’s tonsillar ring.
- The tonsils are a key defensive barrier. Located near the respiratory system and digestive tract, the tonsils are crucial in preventing pathogens from entering the body and causing infection or disease. By binding to these pathogens, the tonsils trigger an immune system response.
- Adenoid tonsils can obstruct breathing and cause facial deformities. When the adenoids become swollen and enlarged, they can obstruct the airway and interfere with sinus drainage, leading to sinus and ear infections, snoring or obstructive sleep apnea. Large adenoids can force a person to breathe through their mouth, which can put stress on developing facial bones and cause facial deformities.
- Tonsils may need to be removed. If the tonsils grow too large or become prone to frequent infection, they may need to be surgically removed. Luckily, this does not appear to affect the immune system’s inability to ward off attack. The procedure is known as a tonsillectomy and has been performed for thousands of years, even showing up in ancient Ayurvedic texts.
- Tonsil removal surgeries often occurred for unusual reasons. The benefits of tonsillectomy surgery have been debated over the years. Once a common childhood procedure – many a kid was comforted with promises of ice cream after – they are no longer routine but reserved for serious cases only. In the past, doctors might perform the surgery for reasons such as bed-wetting, convulsions, hoarseness, bronchitis and asthma.
- Early tonsillectomies were not for the faint of heart. A Roman author of a medical encyclopedia titled Of Medicine, Cornélio Celsus, described a tonsil surgery he performed in the 1st century BC in which he “applied a mixture of vinegar and milk in the surgical specimen to hemostasis” [stanch bleeding] and lamented the lack of proper anesthesia. Another early physician named Aetius de Amida recommended using “ointment, oils, and corrosive formulas with frog fat to treat infections.”
- Sexually-transmitted HPV can cause tonsil cancer. Tonsillar cancers are on the increase due to more cases of human papillomavirus (HPV), making it possible to develop cancer due to sexual activity.
For more information on tonsils and related health problems, contact your Portland ear, nose and throat specialist.