Functions of the Tonsils

Pediatrician examine child throat look with light
A doctor checks a young girl's throat with her mother looking on. (Image: CandyBox Images/iStock/Getty Images)

The tonsils are part of the lymphatic system. Comprised of lymphatic tissue, each tonsil is located on either side of the back of the throat. Usually, tonsils are equal in size, pink in color, and covered with small deep depressions called crypts. Each set of tonsils is composed of three types. The main function of tonsils is to serve as the first line of defense in the immune system. This is accomplished in many ways.

Release of Lymphocytes

Tonsils play a role in the body’s immune defense response to inhaled or ingested bacteria and viruses. The lymphatic system produces immune cells called lymphocytes, which protect the body against disease and illnesses. Tonsils trap bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the nose and mouth. J.B. Weise and a team of researchers analyzed 49 specimens of tissue from cases of enlarged tonsils and found evidence that the tonsils released substances that prevent infections. The new findings were published in a 2002 issue of the journal, "Otolaryngologia Polska."

Prevent Respiratory Infections

The portion of the tonsils referred to as the pharyngeal tonsils or adenoids protect the lungs from bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the nose. They trap harmful inhaled bacteria and produce lymphocytes to destroy the microorganisms before they can reach the lungs. According to the Nemours Foundation website KidsHealth, this function diminishes as a child reaches the age of 3. The physicians of the Texas Pediatric Surgical Associates support that tonsils are not capable of fighting the viral infections that children in urban environments are exposed to. They say that tonsils were once effective in combating parasitic infections which are currently uncommon in developed counties.

Prevent Gastric Infections

Each set of tonsils is made up of three types of tonsils called the palatine, pharyngeal and lingual tonsils. Collectively, these masses of lymphatic tissue encircle the back of the nasal and oral cavities. According to the Rutgers University Division of Life Sciences website, the tonsils function to defend the body against pathogens before these infectious organisms enter the alimentary canal. The alimentary canal begins at the mouth, includes the pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines and ends at the anus.

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