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Hacking up strange clumps—Why?

Dear Alice,

About every six to twelve months I randomly feel as though I have something caught in my throat. Once I hack it up, I notice that it is a spherical "yellowish" clump with an offensive odor. Hacking up this substance occurs sporadically throughout the day and then does not occur for another six to twelve months. I heard from my mother that this substance is food or bacteria caught in your tonsils that surfaces every once in awhile. However I have been unable to find any articles or material on the Internet which can confirm this. Does Alice know?

Dear Reader, 

One potential explanation for your misfortune may be tonsil stones. Tonsils are part of the body's immune system that trap viruses and bacteria, but sometimes, other things like food debris and dead cells can pile up and calcify over time. This leads to tonsil stones. Tonsil stones often show up as hard objects that can be either yellow, white, or grey in appearance and may have a foul odor. While some people won't know they have tonsil stones, symptoms of tonsil stones can include a sore throat, bad breath, a consistent cough, or colored spots present on the surface of the tonsil. If it's not tonsil stones causing your troubles, there are other possible ailments such as post-nasal drip (PND) and seasonal allergies that may be to blame. Read on for more information! 

The membranes that line the nose and sinuses normally produce mucus that helps lubricate and clean nasal passages, cleanse inhaled air of foreign objects and toxins, and fight infection. With post-nasal drip, the mucus accumulates in the throat and can cause thick secretions in the esophagus, interfering with the swallowing mechanism. It may be that your excess mucus is getting trapped as a symptom of PND, causing your gag reflex to hack the offending mucus up when needed. Thankfully, increasing moisture in the sinuses—perhaps by using a humidifier, staying hydrated, or taking a hot shower—can reduce symptoms. 

It may be that your sporadic throat emissions are seasonally affected. Seasonal allergies can often lead to more mucus than normal in your nose and throat. Often beginning in February and lasting until early summer, an increase in irritants like pollen or grass in the air can lead you to sneeze, cough, wheeze, or have other difficulties breathing. These reactions are very common and could explain why your symptoms are so temporal.  
Taking careful note of your symptoms, when they occur, and when they are at their worst can be beneficial in determining if you have seasonal allergies. Since you indicate that the clumps happen only once or twice a year, taking measures to address seasonal allergies may help your situation. As the seasons change, try to avoid caffeine and drink lots of water, which will thin mucus secretions. You could also try over-the-counter mucus-thinning medications—ones containing guaifenesin often have few side effects and may help to clear your pipes. Nasal irrigations or saline sprays may also alleviate thickened head secretions. 

If the clumps are particularly hard in texture, you might consider visiting with a health care provider to get more specific information on what could be causing your condition. Since you can't see your mucus membranes, it may be difficult to know exactly when your throat clumps will return. Experimenting with a few different remedies as the seasons change or visiting a health care facility if symptoms linger will hopefully help to limit your hacking days. 

Best of luck, 

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Last updated May 19, 2023
Originally published May 22, 2009