10 Facts About Your Tonsils

iStock/Neustockimages
iStock/Neustockimages

Most of us only become aware of our tonsils if they become swollen or infected. But these masses of lymphatic tissue in the mouth and throat are important immunological gatekeepers at the start of the airways and digestive tract, grabbing pathogens and warding off diseases before they reach the rest of your body. Here are some essential answers about these often-overlooked tissues—like what to do when your tonsils are swollen, and whether you should get your tonsils removed.

1. People actually have four kinds of tonsils.

The term tonsils usually refers to your palatine tonsils, the ones that can be seen at the back of your throat. But tonsillar tissue also includes the lingual tonsil (located in the base of the tongue), tubal tonsils, and the adenoid tonsil (often just called adenoids). "Collectively, these are referred to as Waldeyer's ring," says Raja Seethala, the director of head and neck pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a member of the College of American Pathologists Cancer Committee.

2. Tonsils are one of the body's first responders to pathogens.

The tonsils are a key barrier to inhaled or ingested pathogens that can cause infection or other harm, Seethala tells Mental Floss. "These pathogens bind to specialized immune cells in the lining—epithelium—to elicit an immune response in the lymphoid T and B cells of the tonsil," he says. Essentially, they help jumpstart your immune response.

3. Adenoid tonsils can obstruct breathing and cause facial deformities.

If the adenoid tonsils are swollen, they can block breathing and clog up your sinus drainage, which can cause sinus and ear infections. If adenoids are too big, it forces a person to breathe through their mouth. In children, frequent mouth breathing has the potential to cause facial deformities by stressing developing facial bones. "If the tonsils are too large and cause airway obstruction, snoring, or obstructive sleep apnea, then removal is important," says Donald Levine, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Nyack, New York. Fortunately, the adenoids tend to get smaller naturally in adulthood.

4. As many of us know, sometimes tonsils are removed.

Even though your tonsils are part of your immune system, Levine tells Mental Floss, "when they become obstructive or chronically infected, then they need to be removed." The rest of your immune system steps in to handle further attacks by pathogens. Another reason to remove tonsils besides size, Levine says, is "chronic tonsillitis due to the failure of the immune system to remove residual bacteria from the tonsils, despite multiple antibiotic therapies."

5. Tonsillectomies have been performed for thousands of years ...

Tonsil removal is believed to have been a phenomenon for three millennia. The procedure is found in ancient Ayurvedic texts, says Seethala, "making it one of the older documented surgical procedures." But though the scientific understanding of the surgery has changed dramatically since then, "the benefits versus harm of tonsillectomy have been continually debated over the centuries," he says.

6. ... and they were probably quite painful.

The first known reported case of tonsillectomy surgery, according to a 2006 paper in Otorhinolaryngology, is by Cornélio Celsus, a Roman "encylopaediest" and dabbler in medicine, who authored a medical encyclopedia titled Of Medicine in the 1st century BCE. Thanks to his work, we can surmise that a tonsillectomy probably was an agonizing procedure for the patient: "Celsus applied a mixture of vinegar and milk in the surgical specimen to hemostasis [stanch bleeding] and also described his difficulty doing that due to lack of proper anesthesia."

7. Tonsil removal was performed for unlikely reasons.

The same paper reveals that among some of the more outlandish reasons for removing tonsils were conditions like "night enuresis (bed-wetting), convulsions, laryngeal stridor, hoarseness, chronic bronchitis, and asthma."

8. An early treatment for swollen tonsils included frog fat.

As early practitioners struggled to perfect techniques for removing tonsils effectively, another early physician, Aetius de Amida, recommended "ointment, oils, and corrosive formulas with frog fat to treat infections."

9. Modern tonsillectomy is much more sophisticated.

A common technique today for removing the tonsils, according to Levine, is a far cry from the painful early attempts. Under brief general anesthesia, Levine uses a process called coblation. "[It's] a kind of cold cautery, so there is almost no bleeding, less post operative pain, and quicker healing. You can return to normal activities 10 days later," Levine says.

10. Sexually-transmitted HPV can cause tonsil cancer.

The incidence of tonsillar cancers is increasing, according to Seethala. "Unlike other head and neck cancers, which are commonly associated with smoking and alcohol, tonsillar cancers are driven by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV)," he says. "HPV-related tonsillar cancer can be considered sexually transmitted."

26 Amazing Facts About the Human Body

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

At some point in your life, you've probably wondered: What is belly button lint, anyway? The answer, according to Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy, is that it's "fibers that rub off of clothing over time." And hairy people are more prone to getting it for a very specific (and kind of gross-sounding) reason. A group of scientists who formed the Belly Button Biodiversity Project in 2011 have also discovered that there's a whole lot of bacteria going on in there.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Erin is sharing 26 amazing facts about the human body, from your philtrum (the dent under your nose) to your feet. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

8 Surprising Facts About Your Nose

iStock/AntonioGuillem
iStock/AntonioGuillem

Your nose is more than just a bump on your face—it’s an important part of the respiratory system and affects many other senses, including your taste and hearing. For being something that’s so central to our daily interactions with the world, there’s still a surprising amount to discover about the nose. Here's a bit of what we do know.

1. Your nose can detect billions of different odors.

Although the human nose is weak compared to canine sniffers, our noses can detect 1 trillion smells. Strangely, scientists still aren’t sure exactly how we smell. For decades, researchers thought the olfactory system worked through receptor binding, meaning molecules of different shapes and sizes bonded to specific parts of the nose like puzzle pieces, triggering smell recognition in the brain. But recently, biophysicist Luca Turin has proposed the nose detects smell through quantum vibrations. Turin suggests the frequency at which different molecules vibrate helps the nose identify them as different scents. The theory could explain why molecules of the same shape smell quite differently. Intriguing as it is, this new theory hasn’t been tested enough to be universally accepted.

2. Our big brains might have caused our noses to protrude.

As anyone who’s been to a zoo probably knows, great apes (the closest human ancestors) have flat nasal openings—and researchers found that type of nose is far more effective at inhaling air than the human version. So what’s up with ours? Scientists think the shape might be a by-product of our big brain. The growing cerebellum forced human faces to become smaller, which probably affected the nose as well.

3. Women's noses are more sensitive than men's.

In the battle of the sexes, women’s noses come out on top. When tested for odor detection and identification, women score consistently higher than men. This might have something to do with the size of their olfactory bulb, a structure in the brain that helps humans identify smells. One study found that women have, on average, 43 percent more cells in their olfactory bulb than men do—meaning they can smell more smells.

4. Holding your nose really does help you swallow something distasteful.

Think you like chocolate just because it tastes good? Think again. Smell is responsible for 75 to 95 percent of flavor, which explains why plugging your nose helps you swallow something unappetizing. More recently, chefs and neurologists have teamed up to create meals for cancer patients and others with a diminished sense of smell, such as the elderly. Cooking meals tailored to the smell-less could help stave off depression and improve the appetite without relying on sugar and salt.

5. Surgeons can regrow damaged noses.

When people have cancer or are in an accident, the nose can become infected or even be completely destroyed. But fear not. Plastic surgeons have a way to regrow your nose—on your forehead. Using cartilage from the ribs and tissue expanders that allow the skin to stretch and grow, a new nose can be formed to replace the old one. And while a nose growing out of your forehead looks odd, it's actually one of the best places for a new nose to grow. The forehead's blood vessels can be harnessed to help grow the tissue, and removing the new nose only leaves a small scar [PDF]. Doctors have performed the procedure in the U.S., China, and India.

6. Your nose can sense more than smells.

The nose doesn’t just translate odors in the nasal passage—the tip is also full of nerves that detect pain and temperature. This helps us “smell” non-odor smells. Even people who can no longer smell things with their olfactory system can detect substances like menthol, the minty compound that makes your skin tingle. (Unfortunately, they can’t detect pure scents like vanilla.)

7. About 20,000 liters of air pass through the nose every day.

The average adult breathes around 20,000 liters of air every day, which keeps the nose quite busy. As the first line of defense for the lungs, the nose filters out small particles like pollen and dust. It also adds moisture to the air and warms it so the lungs are saved from any irritation.

8. Anosmia is just one of several smell disorders affecting the nose.

There are plenty of things that can go wrong in your nose. Allergic rhinitis, sinus infections, and broken noses are just a few. But perhaps less well known are disorders that affect the nose’s ability to smell. Anosmia is the complete inability to detect odors and can be caused by illness, aging, radiation, chemical exposure, or even genetics. Equally bizarre are parosmia and phantosmia: The former changes your perception of smells, and the latter creates the perception of smells that don’t exist. Luckily, only 1 or 2 percent of North Americans suffer from any smell disorders.

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