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A doctor's assistant getting ready for a patient's tonsils to be removed

Why do people get their tonsils removed?

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Tonsillectomies are one of the most common surgical procedures, with over 400,000 performed in the US annually. But why do people get their tonsils removed? The two most common reasons for a person to have their tonsils taken out are because of breathing problems like sleep apnea or frequent bouts of tonsillitis. In these cases, if the tonsils aren’t removed, they can lead to restlessness and sleep apnea, straining the heart and lungs, and potentially interfering with hormones in children.

Your tonsils shrink in relation to your throat as you get older, so tonsil problems are more common in children. As a result, the majority of people who get their tonsils removed are children, but adults can benefit from the surgery in some cases as well.

Since the 1970s, the number of tonsillectomies performed in the US has declined. While the operation was traditionally done primarily to prevent infections, this has dropped from 90 percent to 20 percent, and sleeping problems are now the most common cause.

When you're getting ready for a surgery like a tonsillectomy, it’s common to have questions about what to expect. To help you prepare, we asked some of the medical Experts on justAnswer to help walk us through what to expect if you are going to have your tonsils out.

Meet the Experts

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Dr. Muneeb Ali is a senior registrar in critical care medicine, with a doctoral degree in medicine and surgery. He has been an Expert on JustAnswer since 2006.

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Dr. Greg Williams is a doctor on his residency in family medicine. Greg is new to JustAnswer, only having joined in January of 2018.

What are the most important tonsillitis symptoms to look for?

To start, you should know how to recognize the symptoms of tonsillitis, so you'll be able to recognize the signs of recurring infections. This will help your doctor determine if a tonsillectomy is required.

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Tonsillitis is the simplest of terms infection and/or inflammation of the tonsils.

The tonsils are basically a collection of lymphoid tissue inside the throat. Now usually both bacteria and viruses can cause the tonsils to become inflamed. Viral infections are more common and, in that situation, only supportive treatment like bed rest, fluids and OTC medications are required. However, in case of a bacterial infection, antibiotics are necessary to treat the problem.

A good way to determine if you have a bacterial or a viral infection would be to simply examine your tonsils in a mirror and see if you can see white or yellowish patches present on their surface. If you do, then it is likely to be a bacterial infection. Secondly a high-grade fever, usually above 102 F, also goes in favor of a bacterial infection as well.

Dr. Muneeb Ali
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The symptoms of tonsillitis include severe sore throat, fever (temp > 100.4), swollen submandibular lymph nodes, body aches, and tonsillar enlargement. The tonsils will often contain white spots on their surfaces (i.e. tonsillar exudates).

Dr. Greg Williams

ANSWER SUMMARY: What are the most important tonsillitis symptoms to look for?

The symptoms which should make you think of tonsillitis include:

  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • White or yellow coating or patches on the tonsils
  • Sore throat
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Fever
  • Enlarged, tender glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
  • A scratchy, muffled or throaty voice
  • Bad breath
  • Stomachache, particularly in younger children
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache

How should I prepare for a tonsillectomy?

Whatever the reasons for tonsillectomy in your specific case, you'll still need to get ready for the surgery. This can be scary, so when you're going under the knife you want to know more about what to expect!

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Now in most cases no surgery is required to treat tonsillitis, antibiotics along with OTC antihistamines like Zyrtec or Claritin along with OTC Tylenol/ibuprofen would be enough to treat the infection. Only when you have repeated bacterial infections of the tonsils, is surgery to remove them required. This surgery is known as tonsillectomy (-ectomy means removal).

In order to prepare for a tonsillectomy there are certain things which should be done. Avoid aspirin in any form for the two weeks leading up to the surgery. Follow your surgeon’s instructions regarding food and drink and expect that you won’t be able too eat anything after midnight on the day before the operation.

Dr. Muneeb Ali
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If a patient meets the criteria for tonsillectomy and has been determined to be a good candidate for tonsillectomy, a patient should stop taking aspirin, Ibuprofen (and any other NSAIDs) for at least 2 weeks before surgery. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is okay to take. Patients should avoid eating or drinking anything after midnight the night before surgery.

Dr. Greg Williams

ANSWER SUMMARY: How should I prepare for a tonsillectomy?

Before your operation, you should:

  • Avoid aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Don’t eat or drink anything after midnight on the day of the surgery

What should be expected during recovery from a tonsillectomy?

After the surgery, there will be recovery time and dietary considerations that you'll need to prepare for. Having a sense of these before you go in can help you be ready for your operation.

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Usually the surgery is done under general anesthesia, so you won’t feel any pain whatsoever. However, following the surgery some pain in the throat is to be expected, so keep that in mind. The pain would usually fade away within 2-3 days after surgery. Following surgery, you should drink lots of fluids in order to prevent dehydration. Ice pops and ice cubes are easily tolerated in this time period.

Don’t expect to be able to take yourself home; be sure to have a ride waiting.

You will probably need two weeks to recover, though children may recover faster than adults.

Use a bland and soft diet for a week following the surgery. If they can be tolerated, add foods like ice cream and pudding to your diet. Stick to foods that are easy to chew and swallow as you can handle them. Hard and crunchy food can cause pain or even bleeding, as can acidic or spicy foods.

For healing to occur after a tonsillectomy, it’s important to get plenty of bed rest and it’s advisable to rest for two weeks after surgery for healing to occur properly.

Dr. Muneeb Ali
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The recovery period following a tonsillectomy procedure is usually characterized by significant discomfort and gradual improvement. On the day of surgery, the anesthesia and medications may cause a patient to experience grogginess and lack of coordination. Therefore it's important to avoid driving, making critical decisions, or caring for any dependent persons for 24 hours after surgery.

The pain and discomfort may take up to two weeks to completely resolve. It's most important to follow the post-operative instructions provided by the surgeon. The standard post-operative instructions include advising the patient to avoid taking aspirin/ibuprofen after surgery for at least 2 weeks. Instead, use Children’s Tylenol Elixir for pain relief. Drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration. Soft foods like Jello, ice cream, custards and mashed foods are more easily swallowed and should be eaten as soon as tolerated.

On the other hand, hot, spicy, acidic, rough and scratchy foods should be avoided. Gum chewing is encouraged, because it stimulates saliva production and prevents throat-dryness. Keeping a glass of water at the bedside or purchasing a humidifier to be used at night will reduce pain by preventing dry air from contacting the tonsillar area. It's also important to get adequate rest and avoid any strenuous physical activity for 2 weeks after surgery. Avoid blowing of the nose for 10 days after surgery. If antibiotics were prescribed, the course should be completed (unless otherwise instructed).

Dr. Greg Williams

ANSWER SUMMARY: What should be expected during recovery from a tonsillectomy?

Following your surgery, you should:

  • Have a ride home arranged
  • Expect two weeks of discomfort and pain
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Avoid aspirin or ibuprofen; take acetaminophen for pain
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Stick to soft foods
  • Avoid foods that are difficult or painful to swallow
  • Complete any antibiotics, even if you feel better

Did we miss anything?

As writers, we aren’t perfect, and it’s easy for us to miss important details when we are asking our questions. As a result, we always offer the chance for the Experts to discuss the things they find important, even if we missed them with our questions!

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It's important to note that tonsillitis can be effectively cured in most cased with antibiotics and conservative measures (cold PO fluids, ibuprofen, etc.). Most patients who are diagnosed with tonsillitis will not require surgical intervention (i.e. tonsillectomy).

If you do require a surgical solution to your tonsil problems, you might be worried about what life will be like after they're removed. If you’re wondering are tonsils important, rest assured that there aren’t any negative consequences to having them removed.

When you have medical questions like "Why do people get their tonsils removed?", you can trust the qualified Experts on JustAnswer to provide the information you need in a timely and affordable manner. The advice you receive from them can save you time and expense of a doctor’s appointment!

Dr. Greg Williams
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