Ask Harley


What are tonsils for?

Around your body are many small pockets containing special cells that fight infection. These cells constitute what is called lymphatic tissue (because the infection-fighting cells are called lymphocytes).

Perhaps you have noticed that, when you have a sore throat or a cold, you can feel small nodules under your chin. These nodules, called lymph nodes, contain lymphatic tissue, which swells as the lymphocytes multiply in order to fight the infection.

The back of your throat is surrounded by a ring of lymphatic tissue called Waldyer's ring. On each side, are masses of lymphatic tissue, which we refer to as tonsils (or more precisely, palatine tonsils, because they are near the soft palate). Higher up, in the center, behind your nose, is a single mass of lymphatic tissue called the adenoid or pharyngeal tonsil. (The pharynx is the top part of your throat.)

The job of all this lymphatic tissue is to help fight infections during the first few years of life. After the age of three, however, the tonsils and adenoid are not important. In some children, this tissue can become infected and swollen to the point where even antibiotics (drugs that kill bacteria) won't help, and it becomes necessary to remove the tissue permanently. This procedure is called a "tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy" or T&A ("ectomy" refers to cutting something out), and is the second most common surgical procedure performed on children.

(In case you are wondering, the most common childhood procedure is a myringotomy, in which a small tube is inserted into a hole in the eardrum in order to prevent chronic ear infections.)