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Tonsillectomies down by 50% since the 1970's

Best thing about having your tonsils removed was getting to eat all the ice-cream you wanted.
Best thing about having your tonsils removed was getting to eat all the ice-cream you wanted.Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Having one’s tonsils removed was once considered to be almost a “right of passage” for children. In fact, government statistics state that more than a million tonsillectomies were performed annually by the mid 1970’s. These were generally performed as a means of putting an end to persistent sore throats. The major plus side from a kid’s point of view was that they got to eat as much ice-cream as they wanted after the procedure to help quell pain due to inflammation.Today, only about half that amount are performed as doctors have gained a better understanding on why we even have tonsils in the first place.

Basically, tonsils are part of the body’s immune system. By acting as a gatekeeper to the throat, they may play a major role in stopping a number of illnesses, including flu by “sampling bacteria and other viruses, etc. and helping the body to coordinate its defense system against them.” In fact, there are actually 4 different types of tonsils including those on either side of the uvula (the dangly punching bag-like growth hanging at the back of the mouth), as well as at the tongue’s root and behind the nose (aka the adenoids). Each of these contain lots of white blood cells called lymphocutes that identify the incoming pathogens. It was not until 2012,however, that a research team at Ohio State University found that tonsils actually create T-lymphocutes (T-standing for the thymus located behind the breastbone once thought to be the sole source of T-cells manufactured by the body), which also may help defend against cancer cells. In fact, scientists found T-lymphcutes in 5 stages of development from the earliest to the most mature stages in tonsils that had been removed from children.

Tonsillectomies are still recommended, however, in cases where there are recurring abcesses on the tonsils, or they become so enlarged that they interfere with the patient’s ability to breathe properly. In fact 80% of all operations now performed as a means of easing breathing difficulties during sleep by opening up blocked airways.