How do the tonsils work?

The tonsils are part of the body’s . Because of their location at the throat and palate, they can stop germs entering the body through the mouth or the nose. The tonsils also contain a lot of white blood cells, which are responsible for killing germs.

Illustration: Location of the tonsils. Left: Side view of the head (cross-section), Right: View into the mouth

There are different types of tonsils:

  • Palatine tonsils (tonsilla palatina)
  • The adenoids (pharyngeal tonsil or tonsilla pharyngealis)
  • Lingual tonsil (tonsilla lingualis)

The two palatine tonsils are found on the right and left of the back of the throat, and are the only tonsils that can be seen unaided when you open your mouth. The adenoids are found high up in the throat, behind the nose, and can only be seen through rhinoscopy (an examination of the inside of the nose). The lingual tonsil is located far back at the base of the tongue, on its back surface.

All of these tonsillar structures together are sometimes called Waldeyer's ring since they form a ring around the opening to the throat from the mouth and nose. This position allows them to prevent germs like viruses or from entering the body through the mouth or the nose. There are also more cells located behind Waldeyer's ring on the sides of the throat. These cells can take on the function of the adenoids if they have been removed.

The palatine tonsils can become inflamed. Known as tonsillitis, this makes them swell up and turn very red. They often have yellowish spots on them as well. The most common symptoms are a sore throat and fever.

The palatine tonsils and the adenoids may become enlarged, especially in children. That makes it harder to breathe and causes sleep problems. Because of these problems, tonsil surgery is sometimes recommended.

Brandes R, Lang F, Schmidt R. Physiologie des Menschen: mit Pathophysiologie. Berlin: Springer; 2019.

Menche N. Biologie Anatomie Physiologie. München: Urban und Fischer; 2020.

Pschyrembel Online. 2022.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas - either via our form or by We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Über diese Seite

Updated on November 30, 2022

Next planned update: 2025


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.