Adenoid hyperplasia is the overenlargement of the lymph glands located above the back of the mouth.
Located at the back of the mouth above and below the soft palate are two pairs of lymph glands. The tonsils below are clearly visible behind the back teeth; the adenoids lie just above them and are hidden from view by the palate. Together these four arsenals of immune defense guard the major entrance to the body from foreign invaders—the germs we breathe and eat. In contrast to the rest of the body's tissues, lymphoid tissue reaches its greatest size in mid-childhood and recedes thereafter. In this way children are best able to develop the immunities they need to survive in a world full of infectious diseases.
Beyond its normal growth pattern, lymphoid tissue grows excessively (hypertrophies) during an acute infection, as it suddenly increases its immune activity to fight off the invaders. Often it does not completely return to its former size. Each subsequent infection leaves behind a larger set of tonsils and adenoids. To make matters worse, the sponge-like structure of these hypertrophied glands can produce safe havens for germs where the body cannot reach and eliminate them. Before antibiotics and the reduction in infectious childhood diseases over the past few generations, tonsils and adenoids caused greater health problems.
Causes and symptoms
Most tonsil and adenoid hypertrophy is simply caused by the normal growth pattern for that type of tissue. Less often, the hypertrophy is due to repeated throat infections by cold viruses, strep throat, mononucleosis, and in times gone by, diphtheria. The acute infections are usually referred to as tonsillitis, the adenoids getting little recognition because they cannot be seen without special instruments. Symptoms include painful, bright red, often ulcerated tonsils, enlargement of lymph nodes (glands) beneath the jaw, fever, and general discomfort.
After the acute infection subsides, symptoms are generated simply by the size of the glands. Extremely large tonsils can impair breathing and swallowing, although that is quite rare. Large adenoids can impair nose breathing and require a child to breathe through the mouth. Because they encircle the only connection between the middle ear and the eustachian tube, hypertrophied adenoids can also obstruct it and cause middle ear infections.
A simple tongue blade depressing the tongue allows an adequate view of the tonsils. Enlarged tonsils may have deep pockets (crypts) containing dead tissue (necrotic debris). Viewing adenoids requires a small mirror or fiberoptic scope. A child with recurring middle ear infections may well have large adenoids. A throat culture or mononucleosis test will usually reveal the identity of the germ.
It used to be standard practice to remove tonsils and/or adenoids after a few episodes of acute throat or ear infection. The surgery is called tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy (T and A). Opinion changed as it was realized that this tissue is beneficial to the development of immunity. For instance, children without tonsils and adenoids produce only half the immunity to oral polio vaccine. In addition, treatment of ear and throat infections with antibiotics and of recurring ear infections with surgical drainage through the ear drum (tympanostomy) has greatly reduced the incidence of surgical removal of these lymph glands.
There are many botanical/herbal remedies that can be used alone or in formulas to locally assist the tonsils and adenoids in their immune function at the opening of the oral cavity and to tone these glands. Keeping the Eustachian tubes open is an important contribution to optimal function in the tonsils and adenoids. Food allergies are often the culprits for recurring ear infections, as well as tonsilitis and adenoiditis. Identification and removal of the allergic food(s) can greatly assist in alleviating the cause of the problem. Acute tonsillitis also benefits from warm saline gargles.
Hypertrophied adenoids are a normal part of growing up and should be respected for their important role in the development of immunity. Only when their size causes problems by obstructing breathing or middle ear drainage do they demand intervention.
Prevention can be directed toward prompt evaluation and appropriate treatment of sore throats to prevent overgrowth of adenoid tissue. Avoiding other children with acute respiratory illness will also reduce the spread of these common illnesses.
Behman, Richard E., editor. "Tonsils and Adenoids." In Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1996.
Eustacian tube — A tube connecting the middle ear with the back of the nose, allowing air pressure to equalize within the ear whenever it opens, such as with yawning.
Hyperplastic — Overgrown.
Hypertrophy — Overgrowth.
Strep throat — An infection of the throat caused by bacteria of the Streptococcus family, which causes tonsillitis.
Ulcerated — Damaged so that the surface tissue is lost and/or necrotic (dead).
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.