In the 1950s, around 1,400,000 tonsillectomies were performed every year in the United States. At that time, it was thought that removing the tonsils would prevent infection. Now, only a few hundred thousand of these operations are performed a year. In Europe, the rate of tonsillectomy is about 50% lower than the United States.
Tonsillectomy are performed if a patient has repeat infections of tonsillitis (infection of the tonsils), and especially if patients have repeat strep infections.
What do the tonsils do? The tonsils are part of our immune system, and are the first line of defense against infection that enters through our mouths or nose. The tonsils are lined with cells that recognize a bacteria or virus, and activate the immune system to fight against an infection.
However, studies to date show that tonsillectomies only slightly improve the number of throat infections a patient gets a year, and the benefit only lasts for one or two years, as children usually outgrow tonsil-related sore throats.
Some tonsillectomies are performed for patients with sleep apnea, but there is almost no evidence that shows benefit for that condition.
Complications that can occur from tonsillectomy includes bleeding complications which occur in 3% of cases, and 1/15,000 patients die from the surgery.