Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
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Tonsillectomy: Frequently Ask Questions


More than 500,000 children a year undergo tonsillectomy in the U.S., making it one of the most commonly performed surgeries in this country. 

1.  What are tonsils? 

The tonsils are pads of tissue located on either side at the back of the throat. They vary in size; some people have small ones and others have big ones. Tonsils can become enlarged after an infection or with persistent inflammation such as with allergies or reflux. They can become a reservoir for bacteria, some of which can hide inside the tonsils even after taking antibiotics. The tonsils have a role in the immune system by recognizing foreign invaders that are ingested or inhaled, but if they are chronically infected, they tend to do more harm than good. Removing the tonsils does not seem to negatively affect the immune system.

2.  Why is my physician recommending my child’s tonsils be removed?

The most common reasons for surgical removal of the tonsils is that infections or persistent chronic infections can affect breathing, sleeping or swallowing. Tonsil-related problems can lower a child’s health, quality of life, and even their school performance.

3.  What is involved in the procedure?

The surgery will take place under general anesthesia with a breathing tube inserted temporarily by the Anesthesiologist. The ear, nose and throat surgeon (“Otolaryngologist”) will use a cautery pen or other instrument to remove the tonsils through the mouth.  Frequently, an adenoidectomy procedure is performed during tonsillectomy and adds little time to the surgery, which takes between 30 and 45 minutes in most patients. Whether or not the child will be able to go home the same day or will have to be observed overnight will depend on the child’s age and other health conditions.

4.  What is recovery after tonsillectomy like?

Universally, kids have a sore throat after tonsillectomy. It’s no fun for kids or their parents!  Often, prescription pain medicine is given after surgery, and children may need to take pain medicine for 7-14 days, although the first week is usually the worst. Unlike the past where there were dietary restrictions requiring a soft diet, today children can advance to a normal diet whenever they feel up to it, as long as they are drinking enough to stay well hydrated.  Read more about what to expect after surgery.

5.  What are the risks of tonsillectomy?

Tonsillectomy is a very safe surgery. The most common risk is poor drinking afterwards, leading to dehydration and possible admission to hospital.  Bleeding is rare but can occur in 1 to 4 percent of cases. Bleeding tends to happen 5 to 10 days after surgery when the scabs start to lift off the back of the throat. Other less common risks include scarring in the throat, chipped tooth, a voice change, infection, or breathing issues.

Last Edited: September 4, 2014
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