Talking With Your Child's Doctor About Tonsillectomy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Young African American girl getting throat checked by urgent care nurse or physician assistant

Tonsillectomy, the surgery to remove tonsils, isn’t as common as it used to be, but sometimes it's necessary. If your child needs a tonsillectomy, it’s important to talk with your doctor about what will happen before, during and after the procedure. Knowing what to expect can help ease your worries and help your child feel more comfortable. Start the conversation by covering these questions.

Why does my child need a tonsillectomy?

Some kids get ongoing or recurrent tonsil infections. Either of these conditions can lead to enlarged tonsils. Children with enlarged tonsils that do not get better over time may need surgery to remove them. Swollen tonsils can block the airways. Enlarged tonsils can also cause problems with swallowing. If your child has repeated sore throats, year after year, he or she may benefit from a tonsillectomy. 

The number of tonsillectomies has decreased over the past several decades. This is mainly due to changes in how doctors treat tonsil infections. In the past, most tonsillectomies were due to recurrent infections. This is no longer the case. 

Today, most doctors recommend tonsillectomy for children with problems that affect sleep, such as obstructive sleep apnea. This causes frequent pauses in breathing while you sleep.

What happens if my child doesn’t have the surgery?

Chronic tonsil infections and swollen tonsils can affect a child’s quality of life. Enlarged tonsils can make it harder to breathe and interfere with his or her ability to sleep. Kids may snore or have disrupted sleep. Poor sleep quality can lead to feeling sleepy during the day. And that can lead to behavior problems or trouble in school.

Carefully consider all your treatment options and weigh the benefits and risks of the surgery compared to not having it. Your doctor can help you make the right decision for your child. 

What is it like not having tonsils?

The tonsils are lymph nodes located in the back of the mouth and the top of the throat. The tonsils are involved in the body’s immune response. However, if they constantly get infected or become enlarged, tonsils may do more harm than good. People can live a healthy life without them.  

How long is the surgery? 

Surgery to remove the tonsils takes 30 to 45 minutes. Your child will be under general anesthesia and won't feel anything. Ask the doctor if your child will need to stay overnight in the hospital and what arrangements you should make ahead of time. Children with severe sleep disorders and very young children often need to spend the night in the hospital. 

How long does a complete recovery take? 

Recovery time varies from one child to another. In general, it takes about a week. Some kids feel better quickly, while others need up to two weeks to fully recover. Your child’s age and overall health factor in to recovery time.

Right after the operation, children will have a sore throat and may have trouble swallowing. Some develop a slight fever for a day or two. If your child's throat is swollen, he or she may temporarily snore loudly or breathe through the mouth. Breathing should return to normal as swelling subsides, about 1 to 2 weeks after surgery. 

Some kids may have small spots of blood in their nose or in their saliva. However, bright red blood is not normal; call your child's doctor right away for proper medical treatment. Your child’s care team should give you instructions for when to call the doctor or nurse. Also, ask the doctor about follow-up visits your child may need.

How much postoperative pain is normal?

Most children experience some pain after surgery. Some kids have only mild discomfort while others have more severe throat pain. Kids may also feel pain in their ear, jaw or neck area. Your child’s doctor will prescribe medicine. Some kids experience nausea and vomiting right after their operation. This usually gets better as the effects of anesthesia wear off.

What can my child eat or drink after surgery?

It’s important to drink plenty of fluids after a tonsillectomy. Most kids can eat whatever they want after surgery, but your child's doctor may recommend sticking to soft foods at first. The sooner kids chew and eat after the operation, the better. Sometimes throat pain causes children to eat less than usual. Some kids may lose weight, but then gain it back once they start eating normally again. 

When can my child resume normal activities?

Children can gradually return to their normal daily routines as their eating and drinking habits return to normal. Kids are ready to return to their activities when they don’t need pain medication anymore. Sleeping through the night is also a sign that a child has fully recovered. Still, children should not travel far from a hospital for two weeks after surgery. 

How can I prepare my child for surgery?

It’s important to talk to your child about their feelings before surgery and reassure them about the procedure. Let your child know that it's normal to have a sore throat afterwards and that there will be medication to help ease the pain. Be sure to remind kids they do not need their tonsils, and they won't look any different after surgery, but will feel a lot better.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 26
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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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