Scientists Say: Tonsils

This word refers to lumps of tissue in the throat that stop germs from entering the body.

a doctor presses her fingertips against the sides of her patient's throat as part of a checkup

The tonsils are pads of tissue in the throat that help defend the body against infections — but the tonsils themselves often become infected. This is a condition known as tonsillitis.

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Tonsils (noun, “TAHN-sils”)

If you look in the mirror and say “ahh,” you might be able to see two little lumps of tissue in the back of your throat. One is on the left, the other on the right. These are your tonsils. Specifically, they are your palatine tonsils. You have a few sets of tonsils in other places, too. One set, called the adenoids, sits high up in the throat behind the nose. Below those are the tubal tonsils. And the lingual tonsils lie far back in the throat, at the base of the tongue. But when people say “tonsils,” they’re usually talking about the palatine set.

The tonsils are part of the immune system, which protects the body against illness. These soft pads of tissue block viruses and bacteria from entering the body through the nose or mouth. Tonsils do this by producing germ-killing proteins called antibodies. Ironically, the tonsils themselves often get infected. This condition is known as tonsillitis. Common symptoms are a sore throat and fever. Tonsillitis is more common in kids than adults. That’s because the tonsils shrink with age. Smaller tonsils mean a smaller chance of those tonsils getting infected.

When someone gets tonsillitis many times — or their infection doesn’t respond to other treatments — they may have their tonsils taken out. This is done through a minor surgery. Luckily, the body has many other tools to ward off germs. So people don’t appear any more vulnerable to infection after their tonsils are removed.

In a sentence

Getting your tonsils removed may not be fun, but at least it’s a great excuse to eat lots of ice cream while recovering.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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