When my son, Patrick, was 3, he started snoring. We thought it was cute at first. Then, as he got older his snoring got louder, and we noticed that he seemed chronically stuffed up and he breathed through his mouth during the day. Our pediatrician told us that he probably had seasonal allergies, but we took him to an ear, nose, and throat specialist just to be sure. His diagnosis: enlarged adenoids (or in the doctor's words, "Holy smokes! Those are some huge adenoids!"). We worried that this signaled tonsil problems—and possible surgery—since big adenoids can lead to swollen tonsils too. Fortunately, antibiotics cleared up most of Patrick's symptoms and the snoring slowly got better as he got older. His adenoids gradually continued to shrink, and that meant quieter nights—and a less stuffy kid.
We were relieved that he didn't have to have his tonsils or adenoids removed, but nearly 600,000 other kids (mostly between ages 3 and 8) need this surgery every year. Tonsils (those little bumps on both sides in the back of the throat) and adenoids (hidden up in the throat between the nose and mouth) often cause some trouble, but thankfully they aren't considered to be the bad guys they were in the old days. Fifty years ago, between 1 and 2 million kids had their tonsils and adenoids removed annually. "Back in the 1950s and 1960s, doctors just didn't think that tonsils served much of a purpose," says Brian Wiatrak, M.D., a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist at The Children's Hospital of Alabama, in Birmingham. "Children who had frequent sore throats were getting their tonsils removed without a specific cause."
Research has shown that many of those surgeries may not have been necessary. Tonsils and adenoids are little glands that trap a lot of germs and prevent your child from getting sick, so they're the first line of defense against illnesses. Sometimes, though, they become overwhelmed by the foreign invaders and get infected themselves. When that happens, it's known as tonsillitis and adenoid infection.
Young children are more likely to have issues related to the size of their tonsils than older kids or adults are. That's because the glands enlarge in the first five to seven years of life and they're crammed into a relatively small space in a child's throat. So if they get bigger as the result of an infection, that space gets even tighter. If you think your child may have a problem with his tonsils, these common warning signs can help you identify what's really going on.