Tonsils are petite organs strategically located behind back of the throat. They are soft tissues that form a part of our lymphatic system and play a crucial role in the immune system.
If you want to see the tonsils, you need to open your mouth amply in front of a mirror. You will see two fleshy bumps at the two sides and behind the mouth are actually tonsils.
There was a time when the tonsils were thought to be useless organs as evolution virtually made them obsolete. However, now scientists have realized that though small, these glands are very important and play a vital role in our wellbeing.
Precisely speaking, tonsils are accumulations of lymphatic tissues that are found lining the mouth as well as the throat’s opening. These glands are meant to trap viruses, bacteria as well as other harmful substances even before they are able to get into the respiratory system and later in the remaining parts of the body. Since tonsils work to reduce the presence of pathogens and other pollutants in the body and also neutralize infections, they are said to be a constituent of our immune system.
Children generally have large tonsils. This is because these glands become smaller as we age. Consequently, when the tonsils of children are infected it becomes more conspicuous. When the tonsils are infected, they result in the swelling of the tissues, usually causing soreness or pain. It is important to note that if the tonsils are infected once, they are easily vulnerable to infections again. This is the reason why children who suffer from severe tonsil infections, a condition called tonsillitis, or they fall victims to repeated infections, the surgeon may suggest removal of their tonsils.
There was a time when it was a common practice to remove the infected tonsils as people were yet to understand their function in our body. However, these days doctors are aware of the role of tonsils in our immune system and, hence, they are usually more cautious to while recommending the removal of the tonsils. They believe that removing the tonsils can render the immune system weaker, resulting in more rigorous infections at a later stage. It the tonsils manage to survive during one’s childhood, possible infections at a later stage may be less perceptible. Moreover, preserving these tissues will aid in combating diseases overall at a later stage.
Aside from infections, one may have to get rid of their tonsils for various other reasons. There may be times when these tissues become extra large as well as swollen that it obstructs breathing or causing snoring and sleep apnea. In such cases, the doctor will recommend removing the palatine tonsils for the individual’s health as well as comfort. In addition, the tonsils may also be removed when people have difficulties in chewing food. In such instances, doctors often suggest intracapsular tonsillectomy, a surgery that involves only removing a part of this tissue, while allowing some material to be left behind so that the remaining material can help in protecting the patient from infections in the future.
Two tonsils exist in our body and each of them comprise a network of pits (known as crypts), which amass cells that work to combat invading bacteria. The tonsils also enclose B cells, which are a sort of white blood cells that also combats infections. These cells also generate antibodies against influenza, polio, streptococcal pneumonia and several other infections. Antibodies are actually proteins that identify as well as assault the invading pathogens and pollutants that may harm our body.
In addition, tonsils also enclose a variety of T cells, which are also white blood cells that work to eliminate the cells infected with viruses. At the same time, the T cells help to enhance the immunity of the body against contagious organisms.
Tonsils are of three types – pharyngeal tonsils, palatine tonsils and lingual tonsils.
Pharyngeal tonsils: This type of tonsils is located close to the pharynx and they are present since one’s birth. They disappear by the time an individual reaches pre-teen. Sometimes, pharyngeal tonsils swell and this condition is called adenoids.
Palatine tonsils: When we generally talk about tonsils we actually refer to this type of tonsils – palatine tonsils. It appears that they come from two sides of the mouth and become exposed in the oral cavity.
Lingual tonsils: This type of tonsils is found at the base on the tongue. Lingual tonsils have numerous crypts (pits) and these pits are responsible for irregular appearance of the tongue’s surface.
Problems that can occur in the tonsils
Several problems occur in the tonsils and some of the most common issues related to this part of the body include infections due to bacteria or viruses. Some of the common problems associated with tonsils are discussed briefly below.
Tonsillitis: This condition is caused by infections by bacteria or viruses. This condition occurs owing to inflammation of the tonsillar tissues owing to infections by bacteria or viruses, which leads to fever, sore throat, redness of throat, problems in swallowing, loss of voice, and ear pain. Tonsillitis can be of two types – chronic or acute. Chronic tonsillitis occurs when the tonsils are repeatedly infected. Acute tonsillitis results in sore throat and swelling of the throat. People suffering from chronic tonsillitis may require tonsillectomy – a procedure during which the surgeon gets rid of the palatine tonsil tissue. When this is done, it reduces the frequency of getting fresh infections.
Peritonsillar abscess: Simply speaking peritonsillar abscess is a bag of pus that develops if the infection in the tonsils is not treated on time.
Acute mononucleosis: This condition is caused when the Epstein-Barr virus infects the tonsils causing fever, swelling inside the tonsils, rash as well as fatigue.
Strep throat: This condition is caused by bacterial infection of the tonsils and throat and when this occurs it may also cause fever, sore throat and neck pain.
Enlarged tonsils: When a person has enlarged tonsils, it narrows the airways and this can sometimes result in sleep apnea and snoring.
Tonsil stones: Often debris gets trapped in the tonsils and if these get hardened, it forms tonsil stones.
Functions of tonsils
Tonsils perform various key functions in providing us immunity and also protecting us from various contaminants. Tonsils form a component of the lymphatic system and they work to protect our body from pathogens and harmful pollutants and toxic substances. Tonsils are positioned very advantageously, right behind the mouth and the nose. In fact, they are the first line of defence against all the pollutants inhaled or taken in orally.
Tonsils offer immunity: Tonsils are strategically placed so that they are able to trap all pathogens and antigen that enter the body through the mouth and nose and, at the same time, enable the body to generate antibodies against these pollutants. The most important function of the tonsils is to provide the body local immunity. They ensnare bacteria, viruses and all other contaminants that may cause infections and clutch on to them till the immune system kills these unwanted invaders.
Tonsils process lymphatic fluids: Tonsils channel lymph fluid (known as lymphatic fluids) together with other lymphoid tissue. Lymphatic fluid circulates in the lymphatic system’s tissues. The lymphatic system works to get rid of all interstitial fluid from the tissues as well as neighbouring organs with the aim of taking up fatty acids and carries them to the circulatory system. Subsequently it transports the fatty acids to and from the lymph nodes. The lymph fluid encloses proteins, fats and lymphocytes – a variety of white blood cells that provide us immunity. The lymphatic system has a key role in filtering and eliminating all germs and toxins that enter the body.
Tonsils make antibodies: One of the primary functions of the tonsils is to generate antibodies that counteract infections of the respiratory system, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis, laryngitis and rhinitis, which are caused by bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that enter our body through the mouth, nose and throat. Antibodies, which are also known as immunoglobulins, are basically proteins present in the blood as well as other fluids in our body. The antibodies are produced by a variety of constituents of the immune system and protect us from a wide range of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and toxic chemicals. When a particular variety of palatine tonsil cells called Tonsillar B cells mature, they produce five categories of antibodies. These cells produce particular antibodies against haemophilus influenza, staphylococcus aureus, diphtheria toxoid, streptococcus pneumonia and poliovirus.