Signs Your Child’s Tonsils or Adenoids May Need to be Removed

Medically reviewed by Drs. Doug Johnston and Taher Valika

When should you consider removing a child’s tonsils and/or adenoids?

There a several reasons why tonsils and adenoid removal should be considered. Most commonly tonsils are removed because they are enlarged and creating an airflow blockage in the back of a child’s throat when they are sleeping. The adenoids are similar to the tonsils, but in the back of the nose and can similarly cause reduced airflow. This blockage creates snoring, which can be mild, or could be causing a significant impact on the child’s sleep quality and even a child’s health and behavior.

Significant snoring that is associated with obstructive sleep apnea can significantly impact a child’s developing heart, their lungs and their overall development. Some children may also have recurrent tonsil infections and if this number is significant, then the child may experience a significant improvement in quality of life and be able to avoid recurrent antibiotic use, with tonsil (and possibly adenoid) removal.

What is a tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy like?

Getting your tonsils and/or adenoids taken out takes about 30-45 minutes at Lurie Children’s. Your child is fully asleep under general anesthesia, which has proven to be exceedingly safe in these circumstances. There are no cuts made on the on the skin as everything is taken out through the mouth. The pediatric anesthesia team makes sure to give the children pain medication and other medications to improve the way children feel. Once your child wakes up, we make sure they are eating, drinking and the pain is relatively controlled before you get to go home. Most kids go home the same day after surgery, but a minority are kept overnight for observation for special circumstances.

What is tonsillectomy recovery like? 

Getting your tonsils taken out feels like a bad sore throat. It is a lot easier for younger children to recover from this than older children. Post-procedure pain is usually controlled with acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). In most cases, children can eat whatever they prefer after surgery, but a combination of popsicles, milkshakes and ice cream, can go a long way. Drinking lots of liquids afterwards tends to make discomfort better.

What do tonsils and adenoids do?

Tonsils and adenoids are a type of tissue that helps filter bacteria and viruses. In some children, tonsils and adenoids can get enlarged and then stay enlarged, resulting in snoring and sleep concerns, or they can become recurrently infected. Luckily, the body has plenty of other tissue that also process bacteria and viruses, so after tonsil and/or adenoid removal the immune system is not weakened. Simply put, tonsils and adenoids are like your appendix. If they are creating a persistent problem, then we often recommend removal.

What does it mean if a child has swollen tonsils?

Swollen tonsils means that they are enlarged. This can happen for a variety of reasons including natural growth, infection and sometimes enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids are present in other family members.

How do you get tonsilitis or adenoiditis?

Tonsil and adenoid infections are caused by either bacteria or viruses. Many infections are passed between people, just like the common cold. Some children, however, are more prone to these infections compared to others.  As the tonsils and adenoids are responsible for filtering bacteria and viruses before they make it to the rest of your body, it is why having a sore throat is such a common symptom of tonsillitis and adenoiditis.

Is there a “best age” to get tonsils removed?

There isn’t. If the tonsils are creating enough of a problem, regardless of how old you are, then it is appropriate to consider proceeding with tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy. Younger children do have an easier recovery as the body heals faster and they often experience pain differently.

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is recognized by the American College of Surgeons (ACS) as a Level I Children’s Surgery Center. That means the hospital has demonstrated proficiency in surgical care at all levels. Board-certified pediatric surgeonspediatric anesthesiologistsneonatal and pediatric critical care specialistsradiologists and trauma and emergency medicine physicians are available to patients around-the-clock. And the hospital maintains a quality improvement program with teams meeting regularly to review data related to safety to ensure the best quality of patient care.

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