What are tonsils and why do they need removing? (What is a tonsillectomy or adenotonsillectomy?)

How inflamed tonsils compare with normal tonsils

How inflamed tonsils compare with normal tonsils

What are tonsils?

Tonsils are soft tissue located at the back of your throat; they are part of the body’s lymphatic system (so are adenoids). When they are working properly, they help to recognise bacteria and viruses entering through the mouth and produce white blood cells to fight off infection.

Tonsils are particularly useful during childhood while the body is still encountering new bacteria and viruses for the first time and building up the immune system. Doctors seem to be of differing opinion as to how useful they are as adults; I’ve some that have called them redundant and unnecessary, I’ve also met other doctors who view removing them as an absolute last resort.

Why do tonsils need removing?

Tonsils may temporarily swell while fighting infection, sometimes they become so swollen that they result in a very sore throat and fever (tonsilitis), they may also partially obstruct the airways and not respond to non-invasive treatmeants.

Surgery may be recommended to help treat:

  • Multiple case of tonsillitis (seven cases of tonsillitis or strep in the last year, or five cases or more over each of the last two years).
  • Breathing problems related to swollen tonsils
  • Frequent and loud snoring
  • Periods in which you stop breathing during sleep (sleep apnea)
  • Bleeding of the tonsils
  • Trouble swallowing chewy foods, especially meats
  • Cancer of the tonsils

Back in the 1980s, having your tonsils out was kind of a childhood rite of passage. It was a very common procedure and often parents had already experienced a tonsillectomy in their own childhood. Medical opinion has now swung in a different direction and there is a more stringent list of criteria that often needs to be met (as well as requiring parent consent / advocacy). For a balanced medical opinion, try this post by Christopher Johnson (a pediatric intensive care physician) .

What is tonsil grading?

Surgery is most likely to be recommended if tonsils are consistently swollen at Grade 3 or Grade 4 coupled with other complications (such as snoring and/or sleep apnea).

What are the 4 grades of swollen tonsils

What are the 4 grades of swollen tonsils?

Basically tonsils are graded based on how much of the airway they block.

  • Grade 0 = tonsils are within the the tonsillar fossa
  • Grade 1 = tonsils obstruct 0-25% of oropharyngeal airway
  • Grade 2 = tonsils obstruct 26-50%
  • Grade 3 = tonsils obstruct 51-75%
  • Grade 4 = tonsils obstruct 75%

What are the possible side effects of swollen tonsils?

  • Fever / temperature. Keep in mind that children can react in their own individual ways – they may keep getting low grade temperatures instead of a fever.
  • Runny nose and congestion (as well as the sore throat).
  • Difficult or painful swallowing.
  • Swollen and tender glands (lymph nodes) on the sides of the neck.
  • Bad breath.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Tiredness and headache.
  • Stomach upset or pain.
  • Mouth breathing, noisy breathing, and/or snoring (due to enlarged tonsils blocking the airways). Obstructive sleep apnea. The swollen tonsils and/or adenoids can intermittently block airflow. It sounds like your child is silent and then there’s a big noisy sucking in of air.
    • In Miss 2 it can be so loud that I can hear it through her closed bedroom door and can sound like something’s fallen off a shelf and hit the floor! It’s a crappy and frightening thing as a parent that can result in just sitting with them in the dark either to check that they are breathing or to give them a gentle nudge to help them breathe again. If you’ve spent time with them hooked up to an oxygen saturation monitor then you’ll be familiar with what a stark difference there is between their oxygen levels when alert and upright versus lying prone to sleep.

  • Fatigue. They might seem like they’re getting enough hours of sleep but in reality the quality of sleep is poor because their body is struggling to get enough oxygen through the night. It’s a bit like starting each day on a half tank of gas.
  • Developmental delays. Sleep is critical for young children. During those early years, they are rapidly growing and learning. They need sleep to focus during the day; to have time for their brain to make connections between all the things they have learned or experienced; and their brain releases a growth hormone while they sleep. Poor sleep, fatigue and pain/discomfort, trouble hearing: these can make it harder for them to stay on track.
  • Behavioural difficulties. Poor sleep, fatigue and pain/discomfort, trouble hearing: these can result in daily misery that they don’t know how to express.

Keep in mind that young children (i.e. toddlers) may not be able to describe their symptoms to you and it may not even occur to them to do so (especially if they chronic health issues). They may also be confused by referred pain; the ears and throat share nerves (as well as being linked by eustachian tubes) so they may say their ear is sore when the infection is actually in their throat. Another possibility is if they keep exhibiting teething type behaviour well after all their teeth are in (i.e. chewing on fingers or a dummy constantly, lots of drool) combined with a temperature and bad breath – the cause may actually be their tonsils!

What does surgery (a tonsillectomy) involve?

Surgery will normally take place at a hospital (probably as an outpatient). The doctor will review medical history in advance and make recommendations about pausing medications. You will normally be advised not to take anti-inflammatory medications within 7 days of surgery. They will also discuss post-operative pain medication.

The day of the surgery will involve a period of fasting; food or water won’t be permitted because they can impact the anesthetic. It’s a good idea to have family support and a game plan of how to distract your child; an older child may understand why they can’t eat but a toddler is likely to just focus on the fact that they are off routine and they are HUNGRY!

During surgery, your child will be under a general anesthetic. The surgeon will enter through the mouth and the tonsils will be removed with an electrical cauterizing unit.  You can watch videos of surgery on YouTube but they can be a bit difficult to stomach; I preferred this video of a digital tonsillectomy surgery.

adenotonsillectomy

Adenoids and tonsils

Often the adenoids will be removed at the same time as the tonsils (if they are also swollen); this is termed an adenotonsillectomy. Click here for information about the adenoids.

What happens after surgery?

Depending on the age of your child, they may keep them in the hospital overnight for monitoring or they may go to a recovery room and then go home the same day. You should be given a pamphlet with information about post-op care (i.e. like this tonsillectomy guide).

Your child may feel quite groggy and tired for the next few days and also have some nausea; vomiting once or twice is normal but contact your doctor if vomiting persists.

A light, cool diet for the next few days is generally recommended (avoid hot liquids or spicy food) but doctors will often recommend that children eat whatever they want – the abrasion from bread or crackers will actually help to clean the area. (That’s not to say there won’t sometimes be screaming pain because a sharp cracker edge has just struck the surgical site).

Some doctors will prescribe antibiotics. They will normally be prescribed painkillers (like Pammol and Tramadol) and anti-inflammatories (like Nurofen); if your child won’t take the fully funded options consider buying over-the-counter replacements (for kids) that have been flavoured.  It is important to keep on top of their medication (including waking them up around the clock for a few nights) as the pain is severe; it will often peak somewhere around around Days 5-9 due to the way the membranes heal and can be excruciating.

It’s important to keep them rested and hydrated – even if this means just getting small regular sips of water, lemonade ice-blocks, or melty ice=cream into them; overall, the fluids are more important than food.

Common side effects will include:

  • Swollen tongue
  • Bad breath (like a hyena!)
  • White coating on the tongue
  • White scabs over the tonsils

Your doctor will talk you through potential complications and when to seek immediate medical care – i.e. if bleeding occurs (it can be life threatening); they may be able to resolve with medication or surgery may be required.

They need lots of rest for two weeks to promote healing and will be off school during this time due to the risk of infection.  They will also generally have several weeks off sports, exercise, and swimming.

Keep in mind that removing tonsils may only be one part of a wider treatment plan. If the chronic inflammation was linked to allergies then you will still need to work with a doctor to create an ongoing allergy treatment plan.

Home Remedy Porridge for sore throats and enflamed guts

Home Remedy Porridge

Home Remedy Porridge with Slippery Elm

I’ve just been posting about how Miss 2 and I were rushed to hospital by ambulance – her with croup and me with gastro. This is a great recipe for helping your toddler (or adult) to eat when they’ve been vomiting, had diarrhoea,  have a sore throat, have food allergies, or have reflux. It’s also a useful recipe to try after surgery, i.e. for removing adenoids or tonsils. It also pairs well with the rehydration tonic.

Slippery elm can  help relieve inflammatory bowel conditions so it’s also useful for

  • Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

You may also want to try this as a baby food if your baby or toddler needs to be gluten free.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Quinoa Flour
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Brown Rice Flour
  • 1 cup Rice Milk
  • Optional: 1 tsp Slippery Elm
  • Optional: boiling water
  • Optional: Maple Syrup

Allergies: gluten free, dairy free, soy free, egg free, nut free.

Directions

  1. Mix everything in a pot and cook over high heat (stir regularly).
  2. Bring it to a boil and then turn down low. Keep stirring regularly and add more liquid (either rice milk or boiling water) to keep a good consistency.
    • If you have an upset gut then it’s best to include the slippery elm. The slippery elm absorbs water so you will need to slowly add liquid while the porridge is cooking.
  3. Cook for approximately 5 minutes.
  4. Serve plain or as you generally like your porridge. I like this with a little maple syrup stirred in.

How to make a rehydration electrolyte drink at home (for sports or sickness)

Failsafe Rehydration Therapeutic Tonic

Failsafe Rehydration Therapeutic Tonic

I’ve just been posting about how Miss 2 and I were rushed to hospital by ambulance – her with croup and me with gastro. This Failsafe Rehydration Tonic is from Sue Dengate’s book about understanding food. It’s an easy to make Gastrolyte style solution to rehydrate after vomiting, diarrhoea, or when you’ve been too sick to eat. It’s a handy recipe to have for both adults and sick kids! It can also be used for fitness and wellness reasons after training or after sports – it’s much better for you (and cheaper) than commercial drinks that are packed with preservatives and artificial colours.

Ingredients

  • 1 litre boiled water
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)

 

Directions

  1. Mix well.
  2. Sip regularly.

What a nightmare! Getting hospitalised for Mother’s Day at the same time as my toddler!

Hospitalised for gastroenteritis

Hospitalised for gastro

Being a solo mother for a medically fragile child with chronic health issues (including multiple food and airborne allergies) poses a heap of challenges at the best of times. Having us both hospitalised at the same time was incredibly difficult and it frightens me to think what would have happened if my family hadn’t been willing to spend an hour driving in to us and forgoing sleep for about 40 hours.

We actually had quite a pleasant Mother’s Day to begin with. We went to a playgroup for a short time and then went on to a wonderful Solo Mother’s event that was being held.

I’d spent Saturday cleaning like mad (which takes hours because of her dust mite allergies) and then feeling unwell with a nose running like a faucet. I still wasn’t feeling well on Sunday and figured I might have a mild cold.

Things all went downhill at 1am (so, I try to tell myself in an upbeat way that really Mother’s Day had finished) when a loud barking noise coming from my daughter’s room woke me and I found her struggling to breathe. Her story is here.

When the ambulance crew arrived at 1.30am, I was deperately trying to keep my daughter upright (who was determined that she wanted to be alone, prone, and asleep), trying to wake her up to full consciousness, and trying not to throw up.  There’s no time to be sick when your a solo parent with a sick child – I also had a sufficiently high embarassment reflex not to want to hurl in front of the three lovely (male) paramedics; there’s something that’s just easier about vomiting in private.

I spent the ambulance ride sucking on a home-made coconut milk ice-block trying to convince myself not to vomit and looking after Miss 2.

I’m so grateful for all of the lovely staff that helped us at the hospital. A nurse read Miss 2 picture books while I was busy vomiting in the hospital bathroom.  My embarrassment reflex declined as I got sicker; I ended up just drawing the curtain for her room and being grateful for the many vomit buckets the hospital stocks.

My parents spent an hour driving in to us and while Nana stayed with Miss 2, Poppa drove me (in the opposite direction) to collect the car seat and various things from home. This took a long time as the vomiting and diarrhoea kept me in the bathroom a lot and the pain often felt like a thousand glass daggers writhing through my intestines. At times I was crawling through my home on my hands and knees on gritted teeth determined to pack. Poor Poppa! he so wanted to help but couldn’t do more than watch quietly as I assembled everything we needed; it can’t have been easy either having me dry wretch all the way back to the hospital.

We finally got back to the Children’s Hospital and the nurses transferred me to the adult hospital’s Emergency Department. Nana and Poppa stayed with Miss 2 while I got admitted. I was so wracked with constant vomiting that I couldn’t even speak to the doctor unless it was in-between the waves of pain (and more importantly once the anti-emetic had kicked in). They did various tests for infection, a chest x-ray, and were monitoring me in case my appendix burst or my gallbladder (squeezed dry by that point) did anything gnarly. Apparently I was horribly pale, shivering uncontrollably (bless the nurses that brought heated blankets!), and looking pretty crap (aside from the vomiting and hobbling to the adjacent toilet), I went through two IV bags of fluids and a bunch of drugs before I was stabilised enough to sip water. As really awkward timing, Miss 2 got discharged almost 6 hours before me! Thank god Nana + Poppa were with her as I’m not sure what would have happened otherwise – it certainly would have been a far more traumatic experience for both of us!

Overall, they thought I had a severe case of viral gastroenteritis with severe pain from the inflammation + a cold/flu virus, and possibly Miss 2’s croup as well. I was unwell enough that they were considering admitting me into of the other wards but Miss 2 needed me so I got discharged to family care and monitoring instead (as there’s still a risk the appendix could progressively worsen). I’m so grateful that this has happened at a time when my family can help care for us as I can’t walk much without the pain starting and am pretty much living on mum’s Fail-safe Porridge and Rehydration Therapeutic Tonic.

What is croup and how does it effect toddlers?

What does croup look like in toddlers?

What does croup look like in toddlers?

Croup is a viral illness in young children which causes narrowing of the upper airways. Croup is often a mild illness but can quickly become serious, so do not hesitate to get medical help.

The funny thing about croup is that it’s like the vampire of toddler illnesses. During the day it may not have a visible impact beyond your toddler eating little (and lets face it sometimes they do want to live on air and crayons) and sounding hoarse. For Miss 2, it was that she woke up on Mother’s Day having largely lost her voice, was eating little, and had a mild temperature in the afternoon.

Toddlers have softer windpipes than older children so it’s often when they lie down to sleep that the narrowed airways will become more apparent. Their breathing may start to wheeze and become progressively more of a struggle; it can also cause a strange cough (stridor). What does a croup cough sound like in a two year old? It sounds a bit like a lion purring or a seal bark; personally I think stridor sounds most like a lion coughing up a fur ball.  The animal metaphors might sound cute but the cough can be so loud that it’s enough to travel between rooms and wake you up at night; it can also be frightening if it’s the first time you’ve heard it and you have no idea what it means!

For many children, croup will be a mild illness (which can recur) and which can be treated at home. For others, they need to see a doctor or require urgent medical care. In New Zealand there is a registered nurse available 24/7 to provide free health advice on Healthline (0800 611 116); they can help assess your child and advise whether to ring for an ambulance or wait to see a doctor the next morning.

Personally, I think that croup is worse for children that have allergies. In fact, as well as viral croup, there is also a form of spasmodic croup which may be caused by Gastric Reflux Disease (GERDs) or by allergies. I’ve also read blog posts from other allergy families where croup has become a recurrent problem for their toddllers.

For Miss 2, I was woken at 1am by her strange noises (the croup cough) and found her struggling to breathe; she’d also started a mild fever while she was sleeping. She already has enflamed adenoids, turbinates, and tonsils as a result of her airborne allergies (and any undiagnosed food intolerances) so having her airways swell further was frightening.  My gut instinct said she needed immediate help and I rang Heathline to check if I should was right, if I should drive her to the children’s hospital (which would delay things) or ring an ambulance. After listening to her breathe, I was told to ring an ambulance.

She was so sick that she slept most of the night in the Emergency Ward bed; she needed to be kept semi-upright (to help her airways). Her fever worsened, even with parecetamol, and didn’t break until morning. The recommended treatment for croup is oral steroids. This made me nervous as:

  • she’s allergic to topical steroids
  • even temporary steroids can cause massive behavioural changes and tantrums in toddlers.

Her allergy to topical steroids results in awful periorficial dermatitis rather than anaphylaxis and having her airways potentially constrict in life threatening ways – so I opted for the oral steroid.

It definitely helped with her breathing. She still had virtually no voice on Day 2 or 3 (it might take a week to return) and I still had to sit up with her on Night 2 but her breathing was manageable at home and no where near as bad as the night she was hospitalised. Thankfully she also hasn’t had any major tantrums so far; mind you, she’s probably too tired to tantrum yet. She’s eating very little as her throat is so sore and is mainly sticking to formula, sips of water, and the occasional mouthful of soft foods.

NOTE – Thank you to all the readers that have shared their stories with me!

I continue to feel that croup can be a much more serious illness for families with medically fragile children – including food allergies, airborne/environmental allergies, asthma, and reflux. Doctors will most commonly look for croup in babies and very young toddlers but plenty of allergy families have shared that their children have continued to have viral croup up to age 10!

If you’re familiar with what a croup cough sounds like then do advocate on behalf of your child for medical care if it’s needed – you’re the one awake in the wee hours of the night hearing it (and they may not have the cough during the day)!  Don’t hesitate to ring for an ambulance at night if your child is struggling to breathe!

It’s worth investigating what charges there are for your local ambulance service and if they have a subscription service. If you live in New Zealand, it’s around NZD$90 for each medical emergency (non-ACC) call-out of a St John’s ambulance but you can get an annual ambulance subscription for the whole household for NZD$65 per year. I’m so glad that I signed us up for membership after her ambulance trip just before Christmas!

 

What are adenoids and why do they need removing? (What is an adenoidectomy?)

What are adenoids?

What do swollen adenoids look like?

Miss 2 is now on the waiting list for surgery. She needs her adenoids removed, her turbinates (inside her sinuses) reduced, and her tonsils will continue to be monitored.

What are adenoids?

Adenoids are soft tissue located located behind the sinuses; they are part of the body’s lymphatic system (so are tonsils). When they are working properly, they help to recognise bacteria and viruses entering through the nose and produce white blood cells to fight off infection.

Adenoids are particularly useful during early childhood while the body is still encountering new bacteria and viruses for the first time and building up the immune system. Doctors tend to consider them most useful up to age 7; in adolescence they begin to shrink and by adulthood they can practically disappear.

Why do adenoids needs removing?

Sometimes in childhood the adenoids swell and stay swollen. This can be due to frequent infections, due to a chronically over-active immune system (i.e. in an atopic child there might be ongoing aero-allergens and food allergies), or for reasons unknown.

This swelling is particularly problematic the younger the child is because their airways are so small to begin with! Also, swollen adenoids often aren’t the only problem. Look at the picture above and imagine that there is also swelling in the nasal passage (swollen turbinates) and that there are also swollen tonsils in the throat – that can result in a highly miserable toddler!

What are the possible side effects of swollen adenoids?

  • Obstructive sleep apnea. The swollen adenoids can intermittently block airflow. It sounds like your child is silent and then there’s a big noisy sucking in of air.
    • In Miss 2 it can be so loud that I can hear it through her closed bedroom door and can sound like something’s fallen off a shelf and hit the floor! It’s a crappy and frightening thing as a parent that can result in just sitting with them in the dark either to check that they are breathing or to give them a gentle nudge to help them breathe again.

  • Snoring and heavy mouth breathing.
  • Snotty / blocked nose.
  • Repeated ear infections. The swollen adenoids can block the Eustachian tubes and prevent fluid draining from the ears to the throat.
  • Blocked ears meaning that everything sounds a bit like it’s underwater.
  • Blocked nose meaning a deadened sense of smell. This can also impact their ability to taste foods.
  • Sinus headaches / pressure (in conjunction with blocked nose).
  • Sore throat and/or difficulty swallowing.
  • Fatigue. They might seem like they’re getting enough hours of sleep but in reality the quality of sleep is poor because their body is struggling to get enough oxygen through the night. It’s a bit like starting each day on a half tank of gas.
  • Developmental delays. Sleep is critical for young children. During those early years, they are rapidly growing and learning. They need sleep to focus during the day; to have time for their brain to make connections between all the things they have learned or experienced; and their brain releases a growth hormone while they sleep. Poor sleep, fatigue and pain/discomfort, trouble hearing: these can make it harder for them to stay on track.
  • Behavioural difficulties. Poor sleep, fatigue and pain/discomfort, trouble hearing: these can result in daily misery that they don’t know how to express.

Why didn’t the doctor identify this earlier?

Your normal doctor (a GP) and even a paediatrician can’t see that the adenoids are swollen. You need to be referred to the Ears-Nose-Throat clinic at your local children’s hospital. They will be able to look in their nose and throat during the initial visit and then may request a facial x-ray and/or CT scan for confirmation. They may also monitor the adenoids over a few visits in order to confirm that they are chronically enlarged and not temporarily swollen due to infection; they may also try medications for a few months to see if these help.

It can be a bit like diagnosing the wind – you can’t see the wind but you can see the effects of the wind. You may even have the referral because of something unrelated (like repeated ear infections) and as a result of that find out that the adenoids have been swollen all along.

What does surgery (an adenoidectomy) involve?

Surgery will normally take place at a hospital (probably as an outpatient). The doctor will review medical history in advance and make recommendations about pausing medications. You will normally be advised not to take anti-inflammatory medications within 7 days of surgery. They will also discuss post-operative pain medication.

The day of the surgery will involve a period of fasting; food or water won’t be permitted because they can impact the anesthetic. It’s a good idea to have family support and a game plan of how to distract your child; an older child may understand why they can’t eat but a toddler is likely to just focus on the fact that they are off routine and they are HUNGRY!

During surgery, your child will be under a general anesthetic. The surgeon will enter through the mouth and the adenoids will be removed with an electrical cauterizing unit. You can watch videos of adenoidectomies (like this one); they aren’t pleasant to watch but it can be useful to help you understand what will happen.

What happens after surgery?

Depending on the age of your child, they may keep them in the hospital overnight for monitoring or they may go to a recovery room and then go home the same day.

They may feel quite groggy and tired for the next few days and also have some nausea; vomiting once or twice is normal but contact your doctor if vomiting persists.

A light, cool diet for the next few days is generally recommended (avoid hot liquids).

I’m sure my parents don’t have fond memories of me having my tonsils out when I was 4. I still remember staying overnight in the hospital! Mostly my memories are positive ones due to the fact that I got to spend a week lording it over my baby brother that I got to eat jelly and ice cream. No memory of the pain remains but the joy of those unexpected treats has lasted decades!

They will prescribed antibiotics and some light pain relief. They need lots of rest for 4-5 days to promote healing but the good news is that it is a much faster heal time than for having tonsils removed. They will also generally have 7-10 days off school and 3 weeks off sports, exercise, and swimming.

They will generally have post-surgery check-ups; your doctor will talk you through potential complications and when to seek immediate medical care.

They may have nasal stuffiness for a few months after surgery and may need nasal drops. Snoring may continue for several weeks after surgery (and may temporarily get louder). Their voice may temporarily change for a few weeks to a few months!

Keep in mind that removing the adenoids may only be one part of a wider treatment plan. If the chronic inflammation was linked to allergies then you will still need to work with a doctor to create an ongoing allergy treatment plan.

Looking for more information? I read through a wide number of sites  and this was the one I found most useful.