What do tonsils do?

child with tonsils

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The mouth is an indispensable part of our body. It not only lets us communicate, but it also gives us the flavors of the world and the expression of joy. Numerous people like to steer away from the problems associated with our mouth – perhaps, therefore, people dread a visit to a dentist. The fear stems from the possibility of pain and loss of all the functions listed above. However, it is recommended to see a dentist once every six months to maintain dental hygiene.

For people who care immensely for our mouths, we surprisingly fall short on information regarding it. We are aware of our teeth and tongue but tend to ignore all the other parts. Some of the crucial parts that we tend to ignore – which exists at the junction of our mouth and throat – are the TONSILS.  Most of the people must have heard the term tonsils, particularly due to the infection of the same, called TONSILLITIS. However, seldom do people realize the role of tonsils in our bodies.

What are tonsils?

Contrary to popular belief, the tonsils are not a singular entity. The tonsils appear as AGGREGATED MASSES or ‘lumps’ of soft tissue on either side of the PHARYNX. They are said to be a part of the AERODIGESTIVE TRACK – the crossroads of the windpipe and OESOPHAGUS.

There are four types of tonsils, differing in MORPHOLOGY but perform the same functions –

  1. The ADENOID tonsil
  2. The TUBAL tonsils
  3. The PALATINE tonsils
  4. The LINGUAL tonsils

When the general term ‘tonsils’ is used, the person is most likely referring to the palatine tonsils, which can be seen in the mirror with the mouth wide open. The size of the tonsils vary in people but are of the maximum size by PUBERTY. Over time, tonsils are said to undergo ATROPHY – a property by which the organs diminish in ability and size.

What is the role of the tonsils?

The several types of tonsils work in conjunction to perform their function in the body. Tonsils constitute a part of the LYMPHOID ORGANS. Other organs under this category are the bone marrow, spleen etc., which essentially protect the body from invasive and pathogenic bacteria. The mode of action and roles of each of the lymphoid organs varies – as a manner of direct or indirect attack on the pathogen – but collectively make up the immune system.

The tonsils act on behalf of the immune system by adopting the role of the FIRST LINE OF DEFENCE. The organs which act as the first line of defence tend to first encounter the pathogen and can eliminate it. The lines of defence act like sieves with different diameters of holes. While the first sieve (such as the skin or the tonsils) tend to block most of the pathogens, the other specialised immune cells (such as the LYMPHOCYTES or the ANTIBODIES) eliminate the pathogens that escaped the first line of defence.

The placement of the four types of tonsils is so that a ring is formed at the said junction. This ring termed WALDEYER’S TONSILLAR RING. The ring formation traps the bacteria and viruses that may have been consumed or inhaled. Tonsils harbour an immune cell called MICROFOLD CELLS or M CELLS on their surface that capture the ANTIGENS of the pathogens.

The M Cells also facilitate the recognition of the pathogen by signalling the B CELLS and T CELLS to the site of the invasion. The B cells then proliferate as a response to the pathogen (IMMUNE RESPONSE) in the centre of the tonsils. The germinal centre, as it is called, harbours MEMORY B CELLS. Memory B cells play a crucial role in activating the immune response quicker when there is a second encounter with the same pathogen. A type of antibody called IgA is also produced at the germinal centre.


However, tonsils are susceptible to INFLAMMATION, which is manifested as tonsillitis. In such a case, either anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed, or the tonsils are removed. No significant drop in the immune system has been noticed in people who have undergone TONSILLECTOMY (the surgical removal of tonsils).


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