What to Know About Tonsillectomies


A tonsillectomy occurs when a surgeon removes a pair of glands called the tonsils, which are found on either side of the throat at the back of the mouth. The operation used to be almost a rite of passage for young children but is somewhat less common now. The tonsils are part of the body’s immune system and produce white blood cells to combat diseases.


Tonsils used to be removed if the pediatrician noticed some inflammation and swelling, or tonsillitis. Now, they are removed for more serious conditions, including unexplained bleeding and unusual diseases including cancer of the tonsils. Other reasons for tonsillectomy are enlarged tonsils that interfere with breathing or severe tonsillitis that recurs even with treatment. Surgeons also remove tonsils because they develop stones or abscesses.

What a Tonsillectomy Entails

During a tonsillectomy, the patient’s mouth is held open to expose the tonsils. The surgeon then grasps a tonsil with clamps and pulls it forward toward the middle of the mouth. The doctor cuts it free of the membrane that surrounds it with a scalpel. Hemostats or electrocautery control bleeding. They’ll then place a wire snare around the base of the tonsil and use it to cut through it. The surgical wound is then sutured. Some pain is to be expected after a tonsillectomy, but it can be eased through pain medications. Sucking on ice chips or popsicles also help. The patient should rest in bed for at least three days and avoid vigorous activities such as bike riding or rough play for at least six weeks.

Is It Safe?

Though all surgery has risk, tonsillectomy is considered safe, which was why they were performed so often on children. The operation has become somewhat controversial in recent years, but that hasn’t stopped doctors from performing it. Tonsillectomies are performed under general anesthesia, and one of the risks of the surgery is an adverse reaction to the anesthetic. Some of these reactions pass quickly and include nausea, vomiting, sore muscles or headache. It is true that people die under general anesthesia, but this is quite rare. Other complications include swelling of the soft palate and the tongue after the surgery, severe bleeding during and after the tonsillectomy. Infection after tonsillectomy is rare, but it also happens and requires more treatment.

Most tonsillectomies are outpatient procedures, so the patient goes home soon after the surgery is over. If they develop complications, it may mean a night or two in the hospital. A very young child may also need to rest in the hospital overnight. Before committing to the surgery, be sure to do your research to make sure that it’s the best decision for you or your child.

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