There is a vast difference between having a tonsillectomy as a child and as an adult. Firstly, the older you are, the longer it takes the body to heal. Secondly, a child’s tonsils are much smaller than an adult’s and require much less skin to be removed. The larger adult tonsils tend to cause more trauma and pain. However, doctors do not completely understand why an adult experiences more subjective pain than a child. If you are about to have a tonsillectomy or have recently had your tonsils removed, you should expect moderate to severe discomfort and pain for at least two weeks, sometimes longer.
Immediately after the tonsillectomy operation you should not feel too much pain as you will still have the anaesthetic in your system. The pain usually starts to become very uncomfortable when you wake up the following day. Your recovery experience will depend a lot on how you plan for and manage the next two weeks. You should expect to have a mild to severely sore throat in the first two weeks. The throat pain will peak around days 7-11 when the scabs from the wound begin to fall off. You should also expect to lose some weight and feel hungry as you will not be able to follow your normal diet. Loss of taste, sore tongue, bad breath and jaw pain are also commonly reported after a tonsillectomy. Some people also experience mild to severe nausea after the operation due to the anaesthetic.
Your first challenge will be eating and drinking. The most important advice that anyone can give you about recovering from a tonsillectomy is to drink water. Unfortunately drinking water is extremely painful, especially when the throat is dry .e.g. when you first wake up. However, if you do not drink water, the throat becomes even drier and it is even more painful to drink water. You should keep a bottle of water close to you and sip it as often as you can.
Eating food is also very difficult. The most common food in the first few weeks is ice chips or ice lollies as they both hydrate your throat and numb it at the same time which is very soothing. Rough foods which scrape your throat are painful, yet some doctors recommend rough food as they say it will clean the wound and speed up your recovery. I strongly recommend that you talk to your doctor about your tonsillectomy recovery and find out what foods he or she recommends. Most people in the USA are told to eat soft foods for the first week or so until after the scabs have fallen off and then slowly progress to rougher foods. Popular soft foods are pasta, baby food, jell-o, soup, scrambled egg. Do not eat very acidic or spicy foods or sauces as these will cause pain e.g. tomato based sauces or anything with chillies in it.
You will notice that you develop a heavy grey/yellow/white membrane where the tonsils were removed. This is the scab that is protecting the area where you tonsils were removed. It will slowly go away as you heal. The greatest risk you face is hemorrhaging of the wound. This occurs when the wound opens up and begins to bleed. If it is a very small amount it is usually not a big concern, however if it is more, you need to get urgent medical attention. In all cases, you should contact your doctor immediately or get to the nearest emergency hospital. You should not worry too much about the likelihood of serious hemorrhaging during your tonsillectomy recovery period as less than 4% of people will actually experience it.
Another area to focus on is your sleeping environment. You should plan to make this area as comfortable as possible as this is where you will be spending much of your recovery time. I strongly recommend buying or borrowing a humidifier as it can significantly aid in your tonsillectomy recovery. A humidifier will increase the humidity in air that you breathe and therefore aid in keeping your throat moist. Your sleeping cycle will almost certainly be affected by the medication you take and the pain you experience.Depending on the medication you are prescribed and the schedule for taking it, you may find yourself waking up when the medication begins to wear off and the pain increases.
Most people find themselves sleeping for between four and six hours at a time. It is generally a good idea to set an alarm to take your medication if you may be sleeping as this will also give you some time to drink some water.
Medication is critical during your tonsillectomy recovery. You can expect to be prescribed both a pain killer and anti-biotic. The anti-biotic is used to prevent or control any infection arising from the wound. The pain killers are obviously prescribed to help you manage the pain. You may be prescribed an opioid based pain killer which is very effective. Talk to your doctor and ask him exactly how often you should take your medication and the maximum you can take when the pain is severe.
Remember that after the scabs fall off around days 7-11, your recovery will be rapid. Don’t forget to drink water often and follow your medication schedule. If you have not yet had your tonsillectomy and are planning for it, go out now and buy yourself some of your favourite magazines, books etc. Even although the recovery period is quite short, it feels longer than it is and the more things you have to distract yourself with the better!
If you would like to know more about what to expect before, during and after your tonsillectomy, and exactly how to minimize the pain, have a look at the original Adult Tonsillectomy Survival Guide.