Understanding What Your Tonsils Do

Second only to the vestigial appendix, the tonsils may be one of the most enigmatic parts of the body to many people. Ask the average person what he or she knows about their tonsils, and the answer will probably be that they were removed. But tonsils don’t exist just to be cut out—they do serve a purpose. And while a tonsillectomy may be the answer to you or your child’s breathing issues, understanding what your tonsils do is important before embarking upon a surgical procedure.

What They’re Meant To Do

The palatine tonsils are a pair of small organs located in the back of your throat. While you may first associate the throat with the digestive and respiratory systems of the human body, the tonsils are actually part of your immune system. Because the mouth is the most common entry point for pathogens, your tonsils remain close by to act as the immune system’s first strike against invaders. Specialized cells on the tonsils record the presence of a threat, such as a virus or bacteria, and report that threat to the rest of the immune system so the body can formulate a response and keep you healthy.

What They Often End Up Doing

Tonsils are indeed some of the hardest-working parts of your body’s immune system. In fact, therein lies the problem: they often work too hard for their own good. Because of their front-line role in the immune system, tonsils are exposed to a great number of viral attacks, and sometimes, they are overwhelmed by these attacks. This causes inflammation, or tonsillitis, a painful condition that impedes swallowing and breathing. Tonsils can also grow to be too big for the throat they’re in, which can block the airway. This can lead to sleep apnea, in which the person stops breathing while asleep for as many as ten seconds, decreasing the flow of oxygen to the brain and leaving sufferers feeling exhausted throughout each day.

To Remove or Not To Remove?

A tonsillectomy has become almost a rite of passage for most American children. Generally, by about 2nd grade, early infections and sleep disturbances mean it’s time for a kid to have their tonsils removed and recover with the customary week of Jell-O and ice cream. Some children with extreme breathing problems even have their adenoid (an organ related to the palatine tonsils) removed as well. If infections are common, or a sleep study shows there are concerns, then a tonsillectomy is probably the correct decision, perhaps in addition to the removal of the adenoid, if necessary. However, if you or your child does not suffer from at least five tonsil infections a year, or sleep apnea is not an issue, then surgery may not be necessary. As an ENT specialist in the Houston area, doctors at Allergy & ENT Associates can help you understand what your tonsils do and whether you should have them removed. Either way, you can treat yourself to that ice cream.

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