February 21st, 2011
08:39 AM ET

What are those white lumps in my tonsils?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Asked by Christy, Iowa

I sometimes get little white lumps in my tonsils. What's the best way to get them out?

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. It sounds like you're describing tonsillar stones (also called tonsilloliths), which are clumps of food particles, mucus, dead tissue cells and more that can collect in the crypts found on the surface of the tonsils. They may occur when you're perfectly healthy or during respiratory infections or eating certain foods that get caught in the pits of one's tonsils.

If you leave the tonsil stones alone, they may come out on their own while gargling or coughing. This may be more likely to occur when you first wake up in the morning, after they have dried up a bit and become smaller than the pits where they were lodged.

I consulted with Dr. Mark Brown, an Austin, Texas, physician who is board certified in otolaryngology, facial plastic and reconstructive surgery, and sleep medicine for more information. Brown reports that tonsillar stones are more annoying than worrisome, although they are occasionally associated with sore throats and bad breath. In extreme cases, some people may have their tonsils removed to prevent the stones from recurring.

Removing the stones through gargling or carefully using a long, thin and clean object may take care of the problem temporarily, but the stones may form again. There are also a number of stone removal "kits" available that you may wish to try. Laser treatment to smooth the surface of the tonsils may also be an option you can discuss with your physician if you find the stones to be especially bothersome.

Good luck!

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.