Everything you need to know about a tonsillectomy

By Drum Digital
30 May 2014

Four South African doctors were recently charged with culpable homicide after a two-year-old boy died during a tonsillectomy. We tell you everything you need to know about tonsils, why they might have to be removed, how the operation is performed and what the possible dangers are.

Four South African doctors were recently charged with culpable homicide after a two-year-old boy died during a tonsillectomy. Jaundré Bennett died on the morning of Friday 4 May 2012 after his tonsils were removed at the Mediclinic Vereeniging the previous day. The four doctors who performed his operation appeared in court on 27 May and the case in which they’ve been charged with culpable homicide will start next year.

We tell you everything you need to know about tonsils, why they might have to be removed, how the operation is performed and what the possible dangers are.

What are tonsils?

Tonsils are small glands in the throat, one on each side. They act as natural filters and help the body in the fight against infections when you’re a young child. After the age of about three, the function of tonsils becomes less important and they usually shrink. Therefore, if tonsils cause regular illness, doctors often suggest removing them.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis (tonsil infection)?

  • A sore throat
  • Pain or discomfort when swallowing
  • Fever
  • Swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck

Why should tonsils be removed?

With some children, tonsils often become infected with bacteria and viruses, which could cause swelling and severe pain. When tonsils are enlarged, they could partially block airways which would make it difficult for a child to breathe. Some doctors also suggest large tonsils and adenoids are linked to a condition called glue ear. This happens when the middle ear becomes blocked by a sticky excretion which affects your child’s hearing.

Is a tonsillectomy the only answer?

If your child has difficulty breathing or has developed glue ear it’s probably better to have the tonsils removed. However if tonsils or adenoids are simply infected and not causing severe problems you could wait and see whether the infections abate as they shrink in size as your child gets older.

How to prepare for a tonsillectomy

Just like an adult undergoing an operation, each child reacts differently to a tonsillectomy. Note that your child is likely to experience a certain amount of pain and discomfort after the operation and won’t be able to attend school again right away so remember to make arrangements with the school and teacher.

It’s extremely important to tell your child’s doctor about any bleeding or bruising problems in your family’s medical history.

Also let your doctor know if your child has a sore throat or cold the day before the operation as it might be safer to postpone the op until your child is well.

How is the operation done?

Your doctor will give you all the relevant information at your last doctor’s visit, including the time at which your child has to stop eating and drinking the previous evening. Your child will be admitted to hospital on the day of the operation and you’ll most likely have to be at the hospital at about 6 am.

If your child is feeling anxious or crying a lot before the operation, your anaesthesiologist could prescribe a premedication to calm them down. However most anaesthesiologists forego this as it makes some children feel nauseous after the operation. It would be best to discuss this with the anaesthesiologist when they come to see you before going to theatre.

Tonsils are removed through the mouth while your child is under anaesthetic. The procedure takes about 20 minutes and your child is taken to the recovery area where they’re watched carefully until they wake up from the anaesthetic. You’ll be able to wait for them in the waiting area outside the theatre and accompany the nurses taking them back to their room.

What happens after surgery?

Most children are confused when they come out of theatre so don’t be alarmed if your little one is crying a lot or thrashing around. Once they’ve woken up a bit more, see you’re there and get used to their surroundings, they’ll calm down considerably. But be patient, this might take up to an hour in some cases. Just try to soothe them and be there for them.

For the next few days your child is likely to experience:

  • A sore throat: Give them the painkillers prescribed by your doctor – there’s no reason for your child to be in pain. Don’t give your child aspirin at any point as this might cause bleeding in the throat. (Aspirin isn’t safe for children under the age of 16 unless prescribed by a doctor.)
  • Sore ears: This is normal. It happens because your throat and ears have the same nerves and usually doesn’t mean your child is about to get an ear infection.
  • A white throat: This is normal while the throat heals. You may also see small threads in your child’s throat – sometimes these are used to help stop the bleeding during the operation, and will fall out naturally.


  • Let your child eat normal food: Eating normal food – even crunchy chips – and drinking any kind of fluid – even fizzy drinks – will help your child’s throat heal. Of course it’s also necessary for your child to eat and drink if you’re administering painkillers. Sometimes chewing gum also helps with a sore throat and ears.
  • Remember the fluids: Encourage your child to drink lots of fluids and don’t stop them from eating lots of jelly and yoghurt, although their diet doesn’t have to be limited to liquids and soft food.
  • Avoid citrus: Avoid acidic foods such as lemons, oranges or grapefruit as these might irritate your child’s throat.
  • Some children get a throat infection after the surgery: This usually happens if they’ve not been eating properly. If this happens you may notice a fever and a bad smell from your child’s throat.
  • Don’t ignore bleeding! If you notice any bleeding from your child’s throat, you must see a doctor as soon as possible. If you can’t get hold of your specialist, go to your GP or the hospital’s casualty ward immediately.
  • Keep your child home from school for 10 to 14 days: Make sure your child rests away from crowds, smoky places or people with coughs and colds. Your child may also feel tired for the first few days.

-Janine Nel

Sources: health24.com, aboutkidshealth.ca, foxnews.com, parents.com

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