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Enlarged Tonsils and Adenoids in Children

By

Udayan K. Shah

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
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The tonsils and adenoids may enlarge (become bigger) because of an infection or other cause or may be large at birth. Enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids is common among children and typically does not need any treatment.

  • Enlarged tonsils and adenoids in children may result from infections but may be normal.

  • Enlargement usually causes no symptoms but can occasionally cause difficulty breathing or swallowing and sometimes recurring ear or sinus infections or obstructive sleep apnea.

  • The diagnosis is based on nasopharyngoscopy and sometimes on the results of a sleep study.

  • Antibiotics may be used if a bacterial infection is present, and sometimes, if infections are recurring, the tonsils and adenoids are removed.

Locating the Tonsils and Adenoids

The tonsils are two areas of lymphoid tissue located on either side of the throat. The adenoids, also lymphoid tissue, are located higher and further back, behind the palate, where the nasal passages connect with the throat. The adenoids are not visible through the mouth.

Locating the Tonsils and Adenoids

A Look Inside the Throat

A Look Inside the Nose and Throat

The tonsils are located on both sides of the back of the throat. The adenoids are located higher and further back, where the nasal passages connect with the throat. The tonsils are visible through the mouth, but the adenoids are not.

Causes of Enlarged Tonsils and Adenoids

When enlarged, tonsils sometimes interfere with breathing or swallowing, and adenoids may block the nose or the eustachian tubes that connect the back of the throat to the ears. Usually, tonsils and adenoids return to normal size once the infection is over. Sometimes they remain enlarged, particularly in children who have had frequent or chronic infections. Although extremely rare, cancer sometimes causes enlarged tonsils or adenoids in children.

Symptoms of Enlarged Tonsils and Adenoids

Complications

Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are considered a problem when they cause more serious problems such as the following:

Diagnosis of Enlarged Tonsils and Adenoids

  • Nasopharyngoscopy

  • Sometimes a sleep study

Very large tonsils may be normal, and chronically infected tonsils may be normal-sized. To help determine whether infections are the cause of enlarged tonsils, doctors ask how many episodes of strep throat children have had during the past 1 to 3 years.

Usually, to view the back of the nose and throat, doctors insert a flexible viewing tube through the nose (called a nasopharyngoscope). Doctors also look for redness of the tonsils, enlargement of lymph nodes at the jaw and in the neck, and the effect of the tonsils on breathing.

Treatment of Enlarged Tonsils and Adenoids

  • Treatment of other causes (allergies and infections)

  • Sometimes, adenoidectomy, tonsillectomy, or both

If they think the cause is allergies, doctors may give a nasal corticosteroid spray or other drugs, such as antihistamines, by mouth. If the cause appears to be a bacterial infection, doctors may give antibiotics.

If these drugs are not effective or if doctors think they will not be useful, doctors may recommend surgical removal of the adenoids (called adenoidectomy) and possibly removal of the tonsils (called tonsillectomy) during the same operation.

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are very common operations for children in the United States. Children who benefit from these operations include those who have the following:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea

  • Extreme discomfort when talking and breathing

  • Multiple throat infections (defined by some doctors as more than six infections in 1 year, more than four infections a year for 2 years, or more than two infections a year for 3 years)

  • Cancer (rarely a cause)

Doctors may recommend only adenoidectomy for children who have the following:

  • Frequent ear infections and persistent collections of fluid in the middle ears

  • Recurring nosebleeds or nasal blockages causing voice changes or disturbed sleep

  • Frequent sinus infections

Did You Know...

  • Removing enlarged tonsils and adenoids is useful when enlargement causes extreme discomfort, breathing problems, or recurring infections.

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy do not seem to decrease the frequency or severity of colds or cough.

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are often done on an outpatient basis. These operations should be done at least 2 weeks after any infection has cleared.

The surgical complication rate is low, but postoperative pain and difficulty swallowing caused by tonsillectomy may last up to 2 weeks. Children typically recover from adenoidectomy in 2 to 3 days.

Bleeding resulting from tonsillectomy is a less common complication but may occur at 2 peak times, within 24 hours after surgery or at about 7 days after surgery. Bleeding after surgery may be serious or even life-threatening in children. Children who have bleeding after surgery should go to the hospital or doctor's office.

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