Are You a Good Candidate for Tonsillectomy?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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A tonsillectomy is surgery to remove the tonsils. The tonsils are visible at the back of your throat. Tonsils fight infection, but can get infected and enlarged themselves. This is tonsillitis. Frequent bouts of tonsillitis can cause discomfort and lead to difficulty breathing and swallowing, sleep apnea, and ear infections. 

Your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy if you or your child has recurrent tonsillitis or problems from enlarged tonsils. 

Are There Other Treatment Options?

Your doctor can treat bacterial tonsillitis with antibiotics. To ease symptoms, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers, drink fluids, gargle with warm salt water, and suck on throat lozenges. You can manage viral tonsillitis with self-care measures alone. But when tonsillitis becomes frequent and recurrent, tonsillectomy may be the only option for controlling the condition.

In recent years researchers have discovered that the tonsils serve a very important role in fortifying the body’s immune system and, therefore, should not be removed unless medically necessary. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on a tonsillectomy.

When to Consider a Tonsillectomy

You may want to consider a tonsillectomy if you have frequent bouts of tonsillitis. You may also want to consider a tonsillectomy if your sleeping partner notices snoring or pauses in your breathing during sleep.

Your doctor may decide that you are a good candidate for tonsillectomy if:

  • You have more than four tonsil infections over a year, or 5 to 7 over a two-year period.

  • You have bacterial tonsillitis that doesn’t improve with antibiotics.

  • Your tonsillitis causes symptoms that significantly affect your health, such as breathing and eating problems.

  • You have sleep apnea—or pauses in breathing during sleep caused by enlarged tonsils.

  • You have cancer of the tonsils.

  • You have a tonsillar abscess that doesn’t respond to drug treatment.

Who Is NOT a Good Candidate for Tonsillectomy?

Children under three years old are generally not candidates for tonsillectomy. As an older child or adult, you may not be a good candidate if:

  • You have tonsillitis less than four times a year.

  • You have a very small or misshapen mouth or an oral condition that can make surgery difficult to perform.

  • You have an infection, bleeding disorder, anemia, or uncontrolled chronic illness.

  • You are unable to tolerate anesthesia.

What to Expect

A surgeon performs tonsillectomy in a hospital using general anesthesia. Your surgeon will use a scalpel, laser, electrocautery, or radiofrequency energy to remove or reduce the size of the tonsils.

The procedure takes around 30 minutes. You will wake up in the recovery room after surgery and will stay there for several hours until you are stable. You should be able to go home the day of the procedure. 

You will have some discomfort after your surgery, including a sore throat that goes away gradually over several days. You may also have soreness in your ears, neck or jaw. Your doctor will treat your pain as you recover. 

You will likely tolerate soft food best after a tonsillectomy. Gradually, you will return to a normal diet without pain when you swallow. Full recovery takes 1 to 2 weeks.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  4. Tonsillectomy. Cincinnati Children’s.