Halitosis or bad breath affects 15% of the population – or one in seven. For a problem as widespread, it is rarely talked about, save for simplistic advertisements for toothpaste and other products that don’t do much.
These advertisements are part of the problem – they make people think that bad breath is all about oral hygiene. They rarely make people see that they need to look deeper.
In truth, bad breath is often caused by strange, unheard-of conditions. In many, for instance, bad breath is caused by a problem called tonsil stones.
What are the tonsils?
The tonsils are a pair of lymphatic tissue masses at the very back of the mouth. Everyone has one tonsil on each side of the entrance to the food pipe. These form a part of the body’s lymphatic system (or immune system). They act as the body’s first line of defense, producing lymphatic cells that help fight any harmful microorganisms that you may breathe in or ingest.
What are tonsil stones?
Most people have only heard of kidney stones or gallbladder stones. Stones can form on the surface of the tonsils too, though. Tonsil stones or tonsilloliths are little collections of food debris mixed up with bacteria that produce sulfur, a stinky substance that’s behind most cases of bad breath. These collections tend to harden into lumps and lodge themselves on the surface of the tonsils. They appear as little white spots on the tonsils. In some rare cases, tonsil stones can be as large as a few millimeters.
Is everyone at risk?
Since the tonsils have a naturally pitted surface, stone formations are common. In one study in France, researchers found that 6% of their study group of 500 had tonsil stones. Few people have heard of them, however – not even doctors and dentists. Only rarely do they bring up the possibility of tonsil stones when patients complain of bad breath.
If you tend to have bad breath and also tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils) chances are high that your tonsil stones are responsible. One study in Brazil found that in 75% of cases where patients with tonsillitis experienced bad breath, tonsil stones were to blame.
If you’ve had tonsillectomy – where your tonsils were surgically removed – you are still at risk of tonsilloliths. The flesh that remains can attract tonsil stones, too.
Why don’t doctors know about tonsil stones?
In modern medicine, tonsilloliths are simply not on the radar – doctors aren’t trained to pay attention to them. The other problem is that white spots on the tonsils are usually an indication of a simple throat infection in most people. Since doctors see infection-related white spots on the tonsils all the time, it doesn’t often occur to them to think of tonsil stones. Sometimes, these can be hard to spot, too. They can be hidden away in the folds of the tonsils. Only scans can reveal them.
If you have tonsil stones, you may be able to detect them yourself
If your tonsil stones are large enough, you may be able to spot them with a mirror. Sometimes, you may be able to feel them. Many people are constantly annoyed by a feeling of having something stuck at the back of their throats. Try as they might, they don’t manage to get it out. They could have tonsil stones. Since stones can sometimes cause small, localized infections, they can cause a bit of throat soreness, too.
What do you do about tonsil stones and the bad breath that they cause?
Sometimes, tonsil stones come off on their own. You may be able to spit them out or swallow them. Some doctors offer a procedure where they use a laser to smooth the pitted surface of the tonsils. This is a good way to get rid of these stones. Using a water jet irrigation device (such as products by WaterPik) can be a solution, too. Gargling with a non-alcoholic mouthwash can sometimes get rid of these. At any rate, gargling is a good way to prevent stones.
Good oral hygiene and plenty of water to drink each day are a good way to keep tonsil stones away, too. You’ll never have stone-related bad breath then.