Tonsils: Their Purpose and Location

What You Need to Know About Tonsils

tonsillectomy image, tonsillectomy surgery,
Tonsillectomy Image. Image: © ADAM

Definition: Tonsils are part of the lymph system of the body, part of the immune system. They help the immune system fight infection, but are subject to becoming infected themselves, especially in childhood.

Anatomy of Tonsils

There are three sets of tonsils in the back of the mouth:  the adenoids, the palantine and the lingual tonsils. These tonsils are found in pairs, one on each side of the body, and are typically small in size.

 They are made up of lymphatic tissue, a type of tissue that helps filter infection and bacteria from the body.  These three sets of tonsils help the immune system fight off infections, particularly infections in the throat --such as strep throat. 

The tonsils that are visible when looking in the mouth are the palantine tonsils. The tonsils grow until puberty, then begins to shrink in the following years.

Why Tonsils Are Removed

While doing their work preventing infection, the tonsils themselves may become infected and need to be removed, a surgery called a tonsillectomy.  

The palantine tonsils are the most obvious (easy to see) when they become infected and inflamed, but all three sets can become enlarged.  In serious cases, the tonsils can become the size of a walnut and in rare cases can be so large that breathing is difficult. If breathing is a problem due to the size of the tonsils, or they become infected repeatedly in a short period of time, surgery may be necessary.

Most tonsillectomy procedures are performed in childhood, as most people grow out of tonsil infections as they age.  While infection of the tonsils is most common in childhood, they may still need to be removed in adulthood if they are large enough to obstruct the ability to breathe.  Adults with sleep apnea may have a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy as treatment.

Also Known As: adenoids, palantine tonsils, lingual tonsils

Common Misspellings: tonsills

Examples: After having numerous bouts of tonsillitis it was decided that the patient needed to have his tonsils removed in a procedure called a tonsillectomy.

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