How to Survive an Adult Tonsillectomy

So, I’ve been MIA for a while now. I really haven’t been able to post anything within the past 3 weeks due to having my tonsils removed. I’ve had issues with my tonsils since I was a kid; I was constantly getting strep when I was younger. As an adult, I didn’t even experience the typical symptoms of strep anymore, just a low-grade fever and a slight sore throat. Recently, they began to suffocate me during the day and especially at night. Interestingly enough, my dentist also believes that my tonsils directly affected my TMJD. I am somewhat of an anomaly in that it took 4 years to finally stabilize my bite. She feels that because my airway was becoming more constricted, this could have caused my jaw to shift in a way that allowed me to breathe at night. After hearing this and losing massive amounts of sleep, I finally took the plunge to have them removed.  We will see how this impacts my TMJD as well as other daily functions. I can say that after 4 weeks, my bite is still stable and I have yet to experience any jaw spasms.

After having the surgery, I wanted to write some helpful tips for anyone who is considering an adult tonsillectomy. Yes, there is a huge difference between having your tonsils out as a child and having them out as an adult.

Oh and no, you cannot walk it off with Jell-O and popsicles. I tried.

Before you read any further, keep in mind that I suffer from TMJD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder), so my jaw is much more sensitive to being opened for long periods of time. Although the surgery lasts about 20 – 30 minutes, you are intubated. I had extreme jaw pain for the first day or so but then it went away. Also, I could barely fit a toothbrush between my teeth for the first 5 days. You may not experience these issues at all if you do not suffer from TMJD.

It also needs to be said that although I’m happy to share my experience with you, I am not a medical doctor and any questions you have regarding your pre/post op instructions should be directed towards your physician for your safety.

Shall we get started?

Okay I am going to be brutally honest with you-this surgery is not for the weak. If you have a low pain tolerance, just know that it will end soon and you will never have to do it again. If you have a high pain tolerance, just know that it will end soon and you will never have to do it again. 🙂

I have a high pain tolerance, and there were days that I pleaded to God for the pain to subside while on liquid oxycodone-acetaminophen EVERY 4 HOURS. There were other days when I didn’t feel much pain at all (still on the meds of course). This has a lot to do with your body, how quickly it heals, if you’re eating/drinking, and your pain meds.

Lets state the obvious-

Follow your pre-op instructions! Don’t get cute and think you can still wear your favorite nail polish on your toes simply because the surgical site is nowhere near your feet. Don’t eat/drink past midnight- no exceptions. Also, make sure to hydrate! I cannot say it enough, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! The evening before my surgery, I drank 5 to 6 32oz bottles of water. Now of course, I had one 32oz Nalgene bottle that I refilled, but you get what I mean. Also, I was instructed to pack an overnight bag in case of any complications that would cause me to stay overnight for observation.  The most important instruction of all is to have a caregiver take care of you after the surgery.

Choosing a Caregiver

This is the most important choice you will make for your recovery to be successful.  I am blessed to have had my husband take care of me during recovery. He was incredible to say the least. He woke me up every 2 hours to give me meds night and day, made sure I was hydrating, and fed me for 6 days. On day 7 he had to go back to work; I was able to manage my medicines and be by myself at that point.

Needless to say, he is my hero.

If you do not have a significant other (or do not think your significant other will be up to the task/cannot get off of work) ask a parent, sibling, cousin, best friend, neighbor, etc. Basically, you need to trust this person with your life. I am fortunate enough to still have my mom and was relieved that she was with my husband and me pre-op and post- op.

This is a critical choice and they will not perform the surgery unless you have someone staying with you for at least 24 hours. Trust me you will need someone with you for the first couple of days.

The day of Surgery – Day One

Try to Relax. I was so nervous that my blood pressure was a little high the day of surgery. I was stressing days before, so by the time it was surgery day, my body was pretty amped up. It is common for this happen but if you can avoid having high blood pressure, do it. Let the nurses and doctors do their thang and don’t forget your overnight bag.

Post-op Medications

Initially I was prescribed liquid Vicodin (Oxycodone-Acetaminophen) Every 4- 6 hours. Trust me- it was every 4 hours on the dot. I was also prescribed liquid Acetaminophen but switched to liquid Ibuprofen every 4 hours. I switched to Ibuprofen because I respond better to it; with Tylenol I might as well have taken a placebo.

You will need to take some sort of stool softener from the very beginning. I know it isn’t fun to talk about, but it’s dangerous to take a narcotic and not poo. If you feel you’ve gone too long without having a bowel movement call your doctor. I used MiraLax-it was easy to take since it was a powder.

Later I was prescribed anti-nausea meds because on day 3 I began to vomit and could not keep anything down. To avoid experiencing this, please keep reading.

What to Eat and Drink Post-Op

THIS WILL BE YOUR BIGGEST STRUGGLE. Clear liquids are going to be your friend. Basically the most important part of the entire recovery period is to STAY HYDRATED! I’m not exaggerating one bit. The most common post-op complication is dehydration. I know it’s painful, I know it’s hard, but you have to stay hydrated. If you become dehydrated, you will earn yourself a stay at the surgical center with an IV & fluids. You could also end up in the ER depending on how severe you’ve let it get before notifying your physician.

Btw, another complication to watch for is bleeding. It is normal to have a streak of blood in your saliva. However, it is not normal to vomit, cough, or spit blood. If you experience any of those symptoms, do not hesitate to call 911(this happens in 3% of patients so try not to freak). Anyway, dehydration will be your biggest worry- so keep an eye on how much you are urinating in relation to how much you are drinking. If you are urinating less than 3 to 4 times in a 12 hour period, you are most likely dehydrated. This is where your caregiver will be your saving grace-choose wisely.

On day one (surgery day) I was drinking my 32oz Nalgene bottle empty every 4 hours. Tons of water. Since we don’t have a working icemaker, all of my water was room temperature. Room temp didn’t feel bad but it wasn’t spectacular either. After day 6 I figured out a good way for me to have cold water. I took a pitcher, filled it with water, and refrigerated it. Each time I refilled my Nalgene bottle, I used the refrigerated pitcher. It was marvelous. The Nalgene bottle’s opening is too small to fit regular ice cubes and rather than making ice chips, I used the other method.

I enjoyed feeling cold water on my throat, but you may not. Keep in mind that everyone is different. I have heard other people say that they could not tolerate anything other than ice chips whereas others preferred warm liquids. So, listen to your body and try to drink as much liquid as you can bear.

I’m pretty sure that I was able to eat mac n cheese that night because of the amount of water I was drinking. Yes, it was a little painful but you should understand that I can be very stubborn. I was determined to eat something, ANYTHING that night. That small helping of mac n cheese was the most glorious food I’ve ever eaten. I cannot express how wonderful it tasted- of course I was high on pain killers so, there’s that.

Back to reality.

You may not be able to eat anything- don’t panic this is normal. In fact I was not the norm in that regard so be prepared to starve. I think I was so determined to eat regardless of the pain because I was terrified of vomiting. Now that is painful. Why would you vomit? Because it is most likely that you will be prescribed pain meds that require something on your stomach before you can take them. My throat was at its most painful when scabs started to form. I could barely stand to drink water much less eat. Jell-O really helped me because it coated my stomach and slid down the back of my throat very easily. When I ran out of Jello, I forced myself to eat mac n cheese or pureed baby food. Both of those options were so painful that I had to chase it with something freezing cold to stop the burning in my throat. During that period, banana popsicles were the best. Don’t worry, you will figure out what works for you.

Make sure you coat your stomach with some kind of food before you take your liquid narcotic. Otherwise, you will vomit. Trust me, you don’t want to vomit!

For post-op drinks/foods I had the following:

  • Gatorade – could not bear to drink until week 3. It stung too much to bear.
  • Popsicles-assorted (banana popsicles were the best. Also, avoid red dyes so you can tell if you are bleeding)
  • Italian ice
  • Jell-o
  • Unsweetened applesauce
  • Ramen noodles- do not use the seasoning packet unless you want to set yourself on fire!
  • Mac n cheese
  • Mashed potatoes – I only had these twice as they stuck to the back of my throat.
  • Apple juice
  • Pureed baby food

Think outside the box on foods and drinks. You really aren’t limited in what you can have as far as nutritional requirements. However, you may not be able to handle many foods. Your throat will be raw and sensitive to ANY seasonings, tartness, bitterness, citrus etc. I didn’t want to eat ice cream because I didn’t want to experience phlegm in the back of my throat.  We borrowed my father-in-laws juicer in an effort to juice veggies for a more nutritional recovery. I’m laughing out loud as I read that sentence again. We had no energy to juice anything. We were good to remember meds and to eat/drink.  Who knows, maybe you’ll be determined to juice some veggies.

Random Ear Pain

So you will most likely experience random ear pain. It feels like a really bad ear infection that likes to visit from time to time. For me, my jaw & neck were much more painful than the random ear pain so it’s hard for me to say if it was severe or not in comparison. If you do experience the pain, an ice pack on the ear is very effective. It is quite common for people to experience pain in their ears after a tonsillectomy but it does not last long.

No Physical Exercise- At All

You will think you’re fine to vacuum, to do the dishes, to wash your hair- but you’re not! You have just had major surgery-your body needs to heal.  While I was able to take showers on my own, I really couldn’t do much else. You are supposed to wait at least a week before you can take on a task such as vacuuming. Yes, it seems ridiculous now but I’m dead serious. If you strain yourself in any way- you risk damaging your throat and having to repeat this process.

I really struggled with this because I wanted to clean up the house and finish projects but I was confined to the couch for a week and a half. I broke out into a sweat if I tried to do much more than take a shower or walk to refill my water bottle. It was a very humbling experience but I’m glad I took it easy. I can’t imagine ripping my stitches and having to live through that again.

Sleep

I didn’t sleep well at all. I was taking meds every 2 hours, so by the time I fell asleep it was time to wake up for another dose. I slept upright for 2 weeks on the couch. At the beginning of the third week, I started to lay horizontal. It took some getting used to but at the end of week 3 I was sleeping about 4 to 5 hours a night. Just for reference I need at least 8 hours to be useful during the day, so I had to resort to taking at least one nap a day. What made sleep so hard during week 3 was the withdrawal from the liquid narcotic. That was not cool.

Withdrawal from Meds

You may experience withdrawal from your liquid narcotic. I took mine for 2 weeks every 4 hours. So, when I went cold turkey on week 3 you can imagine my body was wondering what was happening. I wanted to get off of the drug asap. I continued to take the ibuprofen and dealt with the pain. I knew waiting longer would make things worse so, I decided to stop taking the oxycodone. Man, I did not like that experience.

For 5 days, I had chills –day and night, followed by intense hot flashes. I experienced night sweats, cold sweats, runny/stuffy nose, insomnia, sadness, anxiety, and sudden loss of energy. I prayed for the withdrawal to end and it finally did by day 6.

Keep in mind you may experience something different but be prepared just in case.

My Post-Op Experinece

Day One

When I woke up from surgery, I was immediately greeted with neck, jaw, tongue, and throat pain. My pain was an 8 out of 10. My pain didn’t get below an 8 until I was moved into my recovery room. Once there, I was given an orange slushy and liquid hydrocodone-acetaminophen. Once it took effect (5 minutes tops) my pain was a measly 5 out of 10. I decided, in my hazy state, to take advantage of my painkillers and drink as much water as possible. They had a pitcher of ice water available and I drank the entire pitcher and then asked for more lol. Let’s just say I had my game face on- I was determined to get out of there asap and not return.  They will not let you leave until you have drunk enough water so I knew what I had to do.

It’s important to point out that before I left I experienced nausea. I have never experienced nausea after a surgery before (typically anesthesia can cause this) and it was very scary. Why was it scary to me? Because my throat would have been set on fire if I had vomited. Umm, no thank you. Luckily they gave me an anti-nausea pill under my tongue to rid me of that feeling.

When I got home, I set myself up on the couch and had my pillows, blankets, and water with me. Most of the day I slept and drank water. Believe it or not I actually ate mac n cheese that day for dinner. It was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. EVER.  The warmth of the noodles felt so good and the cheese didn’t bother me at all.

Oh and your tongue and neck will hurt very badly. It was so painful after surgery! I iced my neck 24/7.

Days Two & Three

On day two I started feeling the pain increase a little. Other than that I was drinking plenty of water, eating some mac and cheese, talking, icing my neck, and sleeping.

On day three at around 4am I became nauseated. It was time for my next dose of oxycodone but I was so queasy. Unfortunately, I ended up vomiting. It was SO PAINFUL. I had not eaten enough baby food before my previous dose, drank a ton of water and paid the price. To make things worse, my husband had me eat applesauce in order to take my next dose (after I had just vomited). Needless to say, at 5am that entire cup of applesauce and oxycodone visited me again. I was in such pain that I started to freak out because I was missing my current dose. We were able to speak with my doctor and he prescribed an anti-nausea medication. If I had coated my stomach with baby food in the first place, I would not have vomited. REMEMBER: EVEN IF IT STINGS REALLY BAD, EAT IT ANYWAY SO YOU DO NOT VOMIT.

It was very hard to get my pain under control from that point because not only had I missed a dose, I irritated my throat with acidic stomach juices.

If you do not know Jesus, you will surely know him after that experience.

Days Four-Six

Nothing really special happened on these days except a few things. I lost my ability to form words due to the swelling of the tongue and throat. It was very frustrating and I had to write all communication down. It became extremely painful to eat/drink after any period of sleeping. This is due to the scabs in the back of my throat forming and sleeping with my mouth open. It didn’t matter if it was 10 minutes or 4 hours, my throat was on FIRE after any rest.

Week Two

This is about the time that my throat pain was random and would sometimes be at a 10 and other times it would be at a 3. It just depended on all of the scabbing in the back of my throat & sleeping with my mouth open.  When the scabs started to come off, the pain subsided. Towards the end of the week, my pain was at a 3. I was still sleeping with my mouth open; due to my stuffy nose- this caused my throat to become so dry that I couldn’t stop coughing. Even during the day I began to constantly have a tickle in my throat. I had to keep water by my side to stop the coughing. I was eating mostly solid food but still needed the popsicles to calm my throat pain. Physical tasks were very hard to complete.

Week Three

Withdrawal from the liquid narcotic was terrible. I had chills–day and night, followed by intense hot flashes. I experienced night sweats, cold sweats, runny/stuffy nose, insomnia, sadness, anxiety, and sudden loss of energy. By the end of the week the symptoms were gone and I began to get my energy back bit by bit.

Week Four

Well, I’m starting week four tomorrow. All in all, I’m thankful for a successful recovery so far. My throat is not painful but I’m still avoiding sharp foods such as chips.

Anything else?

Yes. I would have used a humidifier from the start. My nose was so dry, it started to bleed. Similar to winter when it’s bone dry and your nose bleeds a little from the dryness. We ended up purchasing one on week 3 because I couldn’t take it anymore.

Be prepared for the hiccups. I had hiccups several times during recovery and they were very painful. I don’t know why I got them but once I calmed down, they went away.

It was really cute to see the animals react to my condition throughout the recovery period. During the day, the dogs would lay with me. At night, the cats would lay with me and keep me company. It was funny to see them work in shifts without any communication. They knew I felt bad and tried to help in the best way they could.

If you’re considering having a tonsillectomy, I hope this helps you. I’m happy to answer any questions you have about my experience and I pray that you have a successful surgery and recovery.

Take care!

10 thoughts on “How to Survive an Adult Tonsillectomy

  1. I know this is old but I got my tonsils out on 9/28 first thing in the morning. I was taking 10 mg oxycodone every 4 hours. Sometimes I’d just take 5, sometimes it’d be 8 hours or so in between doses.

    I stopped taking them cold turkey on Sunday 10/8 11 p.m. was my last dose. I am miserable. It’s been 33 hours since I last took it. You say it took 5 days and I can’t imagine that. When did you start feeling withdrawal symptoms? I woke up at 8 a.m. feeling anxious and sobbing uncontrollably and not realizing why.

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    1. I’m sorry to hear you’re having a difficult time! The good news is everyone’s body is different. My body is extremely sensitive to medications, which is why it took me so long to withdrawal. In your case, it might not take as long for your body to adjust back to normal. I would say it took about a day or so to start feeling the withdrawal- so this is right on schedule if you stopped Sunday evening. I hope it does not take 5 days for you to completely withdrawal and honestly, it might not. The best advice I have for you is to stay hydrated, eat as much food as you can tolerate and rest. Try not to worry about how long it will take-I know this is not easy. The truth is, stressing yourself out could actually make things worse since your body is working overtime to heal itself. When you feel the anxiety come on, breathe slowly and deeply. If you cry, just let it out don’t fight it. I’ve actually had some health stuff come up recently that caused some panic attacks ( I will be writing about this soon) and I was able to talk myself out of each panic attack within about a minute of onset by realizing what was happening and immediately breathing deeply until it passed. I realize that my degree in psychology and past work in the counseling field served me well in those moments but I share this because I don’t want you to think I’m blowing smoke your way. You will get through this and make it to the other side tonsil free and ready to take on the world. Remember, if you feel your withdrawal symptoms are too much to bear, contact your doctor just to be on the safe side. I’ll be praying for you!

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  2. Thank you so much for the detailed description of the aftermath of an adult tonsillectomy. I’m 37 and just had mine out last Thursday. Today will be Monday and Day 5. I’m beginning to wonder what in the world I was thinking for doing this. My husband is the worst nurse and I want to kill him. I wish I had let my mom come. Oh my goodness… and I don’t think the scabs have started to form yet. My plan was to stay unconceous until it was all over and then I discovered I would run out of pain medicine if I kept taking 20 ml every 4 hours, so I had to cut back. And the heartburn… oh my gosh. Just kill me. I stumbled upon your story and it was funny, true, helpful, dreadful, and real. Thank you. Glad you came out of it ok. I was not expecting 4 weeks of this, so I’m a little down, but hanging in there. Going unconscious now. Thank you for trying to help us out!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed my perspective! It really does get better as you go, although at times it seemed like 4 weeks would take FOREVER. Hang in there, the scabs might worry you when they arrive but it means your body is healing. Hydration with those scabs is key, you can do it! Happy healing!

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  3. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

    How many days do you think a caregiver is necessary? It’s hard to find someone who can cover for two weeks!

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    1. I would say a week would be amazing but obviously that’s not always possible. I would say the first 2 to 3 days after surgery would be best. At the very least, someone needs to be with you 24 hours after surgery. I’m glad you enjoyed my experience, good luck!

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  4. I just had my tonsils out 6 days ago and am going thru many different things right now so it was good to hear my symptoms are normal. The first 2-3 days were not bad at all just occasional sore throat, I explained it to people like having strep throat. Sleeping was hard and I would wake up with he worst dry mouth ever which made it hurt pretty bad taking the initial drink of water for the day. Days 4&5 I thought I was already on the down hill slide the pain wasn’t constant and there were multiple hrs in the day I actually felt pretty normal. Today is day 6 and my birthday and I decided to get off my routine or eating alot of ice chips and taking meds religiously which was a terrible idea. I have developed the taste in my mouth that tells me I am healing and have terrible breath but have hot and cold flashes constantly throughout the day mixed with pain down the whole right side of my face. Tomorrow I will get back on my med schedule and eating ice chips but I hope I will be able to function when I go back to work in 5 days, I work overnights and I’m affraid I’m going to struggle.

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