What Are Those Little White Balls You Keep Coughing Up?

Have you been coughing up little off-white balls from time to time? You've probably noticed that the balls have a horrible smell. Many people become quite concerned when this happens to them, but the good news is, what you're experiencing is fairly innocuous. Those little white balls are called tonsil stones, and most people develop them from time to time. Here's a closer look.

What are tonsil stones?

Tonsil stones are composed of bacteria, food particles, and white blood cells. This is why they're so smelly! These materials build up in crevices in your tonsils, which are known as crypts. If you open your mouth and look toward the back of your tongue, the puffy things you see to either side are your tonsils. Usually, if you have tonsil stones, you'll be able to see them poking out of your tonsils -- they look like white bumps or spots.

Who gets tonsil stones?

People of all ages, genders, and races can develop them. Some people are more prone to tonsil stones than others. If you have large tonsil crypts or a lot of mucus draining down your throat (due to a cold or allergies) you're at a higher risk of developing them. For some people, they are a common annoyance. For others, they appear occasionally after a cold or the flu.

Are tonsil stones dangerous?

They make your breath smell bad and they can sometimes cause a scratchy feeling in the back of your throat. But other than this, tonsil stones are not dangerous. The stones sometimes accompany a bout of tonsillitis, which can make your throat pretty sore, but the stones are not what causes the tonsillitis -- they're just a side effect of it.

What can you do about tonsil stones?

If you can feel tonsil stones in the back of your throat, you can try looking in the mirror and using your finger or a cotton swab to poke them out of your tonsils. Do not use anything sharp, and remember to wash your hands afterwards to prevent the spread of bacteria. Gargling with salt water may also help loosen the stones.

Going forward, gargling with mouthwash or salt water once or twice a day will help kill bacteria and prevent more tonsil stones from forming. If tonsil stones continue to bother you, make an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat doctor, such as those at Mid America Ear, Nose, & Throat Clinic PC. They may be able to use a laser to seal the crypts in your tonsils so that food and bacteria no longer get caught in them.