How do the tonsils work?
The tonsils are part of the body’s defense system. Because of their location at the throat and palate, they have a kind of guardian function. They come into contact with germs especially soon after they enter through the mouth or the nose. This allows them to activate the immune system early.
Cross-sectional view showing the tonsils
The tonsils include the following types:
- Two palatine tonsils (tonsilla palatina)
- The adenoids (tonsilla pharyngealis)
- One lingual tonsil (tonsilla lingualis)
The 2 palatine tonsils are found to the right and to the left in the palatal arch’s fold of mucous membrane, and are the only tonsils that can be seen unaided when you open your mouth. The adenoids are situated above the roof of the throat and visible only during rhinoscopy (examination of the inside of the nose). The lingual tonsil is located far back at the base of the tongue on its rear surface.
All tonsils together form a ring around where the mouth and nasal cavity meet the throat. For this reason they are called the tonsillar ring. This position allows them to trap germs like viruses or bacteria that could enter the body through the mouth or the nose. There are also more defense cells located behind the tonsillar ring on the sides of the throat. These cells can take on the function of the adenoids after they have been removed.
If the tonsils are often inflamed, especially the palatine tonsils can become permanently enlarged. In children the adenoids can become very large, making breathing difficult and causing chronic runny nose. In both cases it may be necessary to surgically remove the tonsils or adenoids.
Menche N. (ed.) Biologie Anatomie Physiologie. Munich: Urban & Fischer/ Elsevier; 2012.
Pschyrembel W. Klinisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2014.
Schmidt R, Lang F, Heckmann M. Physiologie des Menschen: mit Pathophysiologie. Heidelberg: Springer; 2011.
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