Do we really need Tonsils?
Posted on 10th January 2024 at 07:33
Mention the word “fashion” and everyone tends to think of clothing – this season’s “must have’s” (!) – but it seems that every part of our lives these days is subject to the latest fashion.
And it doesn’t stop there.
What’s “in” and what’s “out” can also be seen in the world of health, with treatments and protocols regularly going “in” and “out” of fashion. Sometimes it happens quietly over many years without anyone outside the medical profession really noticing. Other times it seems to happen in a flash, often hailed as the latest medical breakthrough or badged as “we now know better.” However it happens, there are always changes and it’s one of these we’d like to talk about today.
Turn the clock back to the 1940’s and 1950’s – we were going to say mid last century, but that sounded so long ago, even if it’s within living memory of many people (!) – and taking out Tonsils was a routine childhood operation. Or Tonsillectomies, if you prefer the proper medical term.
It was one of those minor childhood operations carried out at home, by the local Doctor, without any fuss and ceremony. And, if older family members are to be believed, done as a job lot for all the children in the family, using the kitchen table as an operating table. Which is probably more than enough gruesome detail for one post (!).
This “fashion” continued into the later decades of the twentieth century – albeit in hospital, often as day surgery – but, in recent years, has gone out of fashion, becoming much less common. Having said that, along with the removal of Adenoids, it’s still high on the list of the most common childhood operations.
So, this week, we’re going to take a look at Tonsils, starting with the obvious question.
What are Tonsils and what do they do?
The Tonsils are two oval shaped pads of tissue, found on either side of the back of the Mouth, where it joins the top of the Throat. If you open your Mouth wide in front of a mirror, you may be able to see them as two fleshy lumps at the back of your Mouth. Ah, now the choice of this week’s picture makes sense!
Like the Appendix, they were traditionally thought of as being redundant tissues. In other words, tissues that had fulfilled some function in the dim distant past but were no longer needed. Interestingly, what this function may have been – and why it was no longer needed – was never specified. So, removing them wasn’t seen as an issue, but a routine piece of minor “corrective” surgery.
In recent years it’s become clear that the Tonsils are far from being redundant tissues. And the reason for this is twofold. First, the tissue they’re made up of. Second their location.
The Tonsils are made up of highly specialised lymphoid tissue and play an important part in the body’s first line of defence against infections and any other external “threats” which may try to enter the body. Similar tissues are found in many different parts of the body – such as the Nose, Lungs and Digestive System – so providing a co ordinated first line of defence against external threats.
The Tonsils play a key part in this due to their location, with the Mouth / Throat being an easy way for external threats to penetrate deeper into the body. Whether from food / drink / anything else we “eat”, which then passes down into the Digestive System, or the air we breathe which passes down into the Lungs. Put another way, the Tonsils have a lot of work to do every day…
And, before we go any further, if you need a quick reminder about the Immune System and why it does so much more than we realise, click here.
Why do they become swollen?
Well, as always, there are so many different reasons for this.
They may become acutely swollen in response to an infection which, after all, is what they’re there for. In this case, the swelling is for a very short period of time and then resolves, as the infection is addressed and cleared from the body.
Sometimes, there may be a series of infections, with the Tonsils remaining swollen for longer periods and taking longer to recover. Often this happens in early childhood, as the child spends more time out in the world – at nursery or starting school – and the Immune System starts to strengthen and adapt. It’s often seen as “one of those phases” and resolves over a period of time. A little patience and commonsense is usually all that’s needed.
Occasionally, this can last for a longer period of time, with the Tonsils becoming chronically enlarged – to a greater or lesser extent – perhaps due to an unresolved infection, allergies, other health issues, hormonal changes or stress.
So, why not just “whip them out” then?
While this is one solution, it overlooks the fact that there are many different reasons why the Tonsils may have become swollen, particularly if it’s on more of a ongoing – chronic - basis. The problem here is that, if the “why” isn’t addressed, then removing them isn’t resolving the issue, but leaving it to quietly fester in the background.
This is why, rather than seeing them as a “problem”, looking a little closer at what may be going on with the child – and in their lives – will provide a long term answer. Addressing this will not only clear the underlying issue, so improving their overall health, but also the Tonsils issue too.
Added to this, as with all surgery, there are risks and complications not least from the anaesthetic and post operative bleeding. At the same time, removing one of the body’s first line of defences, has been linked to an increased risk of many conditions in later years such as Asthma, Flu, Pneumonia and COPD.
Interestingly, Tonsils are one of the tissues that can regrow after having been removed surgically. While it’s not that common, we have come across this with Clients, which really should be a hint that they are needed by the body…
What can you do at home to help?
If it’s an acute infection – one of the winter bugs (!) – the usual advice on Coughs, Colds and Sore Throats applies which can be found here.
If it seems to be more of an ongoing issue the, as already mentioned, a little detective work may be needed to identify the underlying cause(s). Sometimes this can be easily done, sometimes a little help is needed and is what we’re here for.
In both cases, don’t panic!
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent and resourceful and will always do everything to help keep us in the best health possible and on our feet. All we need to do is listen to what they’re saying to us and what they need. Often, it’s just a case of taking it easy for a few days and succumbing to the lure of the sofa, fluffy blanket and catching up on some sleep… Oh and don’t forget pineapple juice which is brilliant for helping with all the winter bugs.
As always, the choice is yours.
Picture by unknown author
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