Tonsillectomy Recovery

Crying ManThere 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.

Man holding tonsils

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.

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  • John Sturman:

    Male age 44 tonsillectomy.
    Immediately post op. I was in a lot of pain which was only just dealt with by oromorph. I was close to being admitted to the High Dependency Unit for IV morphine. I was kept in hospital overnight.
    The next day the pain had subsided and I was given ibuprofen and paracetamol to take home, prescribed by the surgeon.
    The only thing that helped the pain was some ice cream.
    The pain day 2 and 3 was 3/10, nothing worse than a normal sore throat and I was able to eat reasonably normally.
    Day 4 I woke with my throat in much more pain. I had very dense scabs in tonsil spaces, some of which sloughed off after a bit of food. Swallowing became painful.
    Day 5 the pain was now up to a 9/10 and the meds. had no effect. Not sleeping and unable to eat or drink. Swallowing sips of water was excruciating.
    Day 6 early hours the pain was 10/10 and almost unbearable. Couldn’t even think and was desperate. Went back to emergency dept. at hospital. Put on IV paracetamol drip and Diclofenac with oral liquid co-codamol. Pain then eased to bearable level in emergency room.
    Prescribed 1000mg tablets of co-codamol, 50mg Diclofenac, anaesthetic throat spray and advised to also take Tramadol when pain was bad. Also given antibiotics in case of any infection.
    Day 7-9 pain was 10/10 unless I took all the prescribed meds. which completely knocked me out, either to sleep or floating around the room. Was scared to sleep as this dried out my throat and when I woke it felt like my throat was being blow torched, until the next meds. took effect.
    Days 10-11 had the pain slowly easing off enabling me to drop my meds dosage, come off the Tramadol and co-codamol. Finally being able to eat small amounts of food, though swallowing still very painful.
    Day 12 had the pain drop to a background of 4/10 and meds. down to 2 Diclofenac a day.
    Day 13 was first day I started to feel a bit like myself. Energy levels returning and able to do some normal low level activities but still with background pain around 3/10.
    Day 14 was the first day background pain occasionally became unnoticeable, though swallowing still hurt but only at a level around 3/10.
    Day 15 was first day without and meds. Occasional background pain with swallowing at level of 2/10. Able to eat and drink normally for the first time.
    Day 16 and 17 has background pain only on waking up for around first half hour. Swallowing pain getting slightly better each day. Able to function normally.
    Overall, a much worse recovery than anticipated, with several days where even swallowing was so painfull I couldn’t eat or drink anything – getting dehydrated and an unbearable background pain, taking me back into hospital. The only answer was to get so dosed up on painkillers I was completely spaced out.
    Now on Day 17 and still recovering, with typical sore throat level pain when swallowing.
    Scabs now just thin covering of tonsil spaces. Uvula almost back to normal size.

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