John Von Arnim goes in search of what causes bad breath.
Few men spend a lot of time examining the detailed topography of their throats. But if you do poke around in the hinterland at the back of your neck, you’ll notice that your tonsils are studded with small pockets. Known to ear, nose and throat specialists as crypts, if they are deep enough it’s easy for debris to pile up in them and form tonsilloliths, which can turn your breath into a deadly blast of sulphur and brimstone.
How do they form?
Debris is fancy Frenchspeak for a ghastly cocktail of food particles, dead mouth tissue, post nasal mucus and anaerobic bacteria that your body identifies – rightly–as a foreign invader. So your immune system goes on red alert and sends white blood cells to attack the rogue mix. The aftermath of this emergency action are white or yellow, broccoli-shaped lumps which start out with the consistency of cottage cheese and become so hard they are called tonsil stones. They smell really bad because bacteria, the root cause of bad breath, find the light-coloured gobs delicious and go forth and multiply. The end result tastes like something you would expect to find in a real crypt – rotting flesh.
Are they common?
Very. Up until recently tonsilloliths didn’t rate much on the medical radar, but the Internet has outed the widespread affliction as sufferers have rushed to cyber forums in search of remedies. A French study reported that over six per cent of the population suffer from tonsilloliths. Other countries haven’t canvassed the issue as thoroughly but Dr Harold Katz, author of The Bad Breath Bible, says that a similar or higher number of Americans suffer from the problem because the number one question he fields is: “What are those things growing on my tonsils?” It’s likely that the same stats hold true for Australia – so that translates as 0.3 million people sporting the hard, white lumps.
Tonsilloliths can be as small as a piece of gravel but are usually the size of a pea. Some grow so large that they make swallowing difficult. A persistent sore throat and ear pain are also common side effects. Researchers believe that tonsilloliths have become more common because fewer people undergo tonsillectomy operations these days. In a Brazilian study, doctors discovered that tonsilloliths were present in over 70 per cent of tonsillitis patients who developed bad breath. Experts like Dr Katz suspect that there’s also a link between the high incidence of prescription medications that cause dry mouth. A lack of saliva causes anaerobic bacteria to breed faster.
Prevention & Cures
At first glance, it looks as if removing the tonsils is the smartest way to stop tonsilloliths. But most doctors view a tonsillectomy as the method of last resort if all other removal and prevention techniques have failed. You can opt for the DIY route to dislocate tonsilloliths – using your fingers (wash your hands first) or a cotton swab (dampen it first) to prise them out. It may cause even more of a gagging reaction, but a toothbrush with soft bristles can also be used to remove tonsilloliths. Too squeamish? Then make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist who can use a range of techniques to get rid of them from laser cryptolysis to winkling them free with a specialised instrument. Prevention is always better than a cure. Keep anaerobic bacteria from breeding by using an oxygenated toothpaste, gargling with a non-alcohol-based mouthwash and wielding a tongue scraper regularly.