Nearly 90% of Kids Who Have This Surgery Don’t Actually Need It

Updated: Nov. 19, 2018

In kids who have recurrent sore throat, there's little difference between those who get a tonsillectomy and those who do not. The number of subsequent sore throats seems to diminish just as well in those who are untreated.

When kids experience regular sore throats, some doctors may recommend that they have their tonsils removed. However, new research from the University of Birmingham in the U.K. suggests that seven out of eight children who receive a tonsillectomy don’t benefit.

The researchers tracked the health of more than 1.6 million kids from 2005 to 2016. Guidelines for tonsillectomy show that a child is qualified for the procedure if they experience seven or more sore throats in one year, five in two successive years, or three per year for three years—the same as U.S. guidelines. (Tonsillectomies are one of the most common procedures performed on American children.) But the researchers saw that many children who meet the guidelines never have the procedure. “We found that even among severely affected children, only a tiny minority ever have their tonsils out,” said Tom Marshall, professor of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Birmingham, in a press release.

Conversely, some kids who do not meet the guidelines do have the surgery. In this study, only about 11 percent of children who had their tonsils removed actually had had sore throats often enough to qualify. Of those who had a tonsillectomy, 12.4 percent had only five to six sore throats in one year; nearly half had only two to four sore throats in a year, and 10 percent of the kids who got the surgery had only one sore throat a year.

In those children with enough documented sore throats, the improvement is slightly quicker after tonsillectomy, and that used to be the justification for surgery. But this research showed that “children with frequent sore throats usually suffer fewer sore throats over the next year or two… and children with fewer sore throats don’t benefit enough to justify surgery, because the sore throats tend to go away anyway,” explains May. “It makes you wonder if tonsillectomy ever is really essential in any child,” he adds. “Children may be more harmed than helped by a tonsillectomy.”

Next, check out the 6 strep throat symptoms that you should never ignore.