Most people have experienced a sore throat at some point in life. However, when are symptoms severe enough to warrant surgery?

“Your tonsils and adenoids, while not critical to staying alive, do perform important tasks,” said Ryan Dempewolf, MD, FACS, otolaryngologist at Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa.  “Tonsils and adenoids are similar to lymph nodes. Your tonsils are found in the back of your throat while adenoids are located behind your nose and soft palate.”

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, tonsils and adenoids are the body’s first line of immune system defense. They “sample” bacteria and viruses that enter through the mouth and nose, which can cause them to become infected.

“As a rule of thumb, there are usually two conditions that require removal of tonsils,” Dr. Dempewolf said. “Chronic sleep apnea, or disrupted breathing at night while sleeping, and recurrent tonsillitis from strep throat or other infections, motivates people to seek a surgical remedy. Adenoids are usually removed if these conditions are accompanied by earaches, recurrent ear infections and fluid in the ear.”

Tonsillectomy is far more common in children under age 18, mostly because of their weaker immune systems that put them at higher risk for infection, and tonsils shrink with age, meaning infections happen less frequently. “Tonsils sometimes are a receptacle for bacteria that cause repeat infections,” Dr. Dempewolf said. “Since tonsils aren’t critical to day-to-day life, specialists frequently recommend they be removed to stop the infections.”

Enlarged tonsils and adenoids can cause sleep apnea in children, which is a condition that results in interrupted nighttime breathing and snoring. Because affected children can’t get the sleep their bodies need, they are sometimes hyperactive and unable to sit still during the day. Stopping breathing also puts strain on the child’s heart and lungs and can disrupt the normal production of hormones, leading to obesity. “It is extremely important to see a specialist if you suspect your child may have an issue with sleep apnea,” Dr. Dempewolf said. “The consequences of this condition are immense and can affect his or her quality of life. A fairly simple surgery can be all the difference.”