More than 30,000 British children needlessly have their tonsils removed every year, researchers have warned – costing the NHS tens of millions of pounds anually.
Experts at the University of Birmingham examined the medical records of 1.6million children in GP practices between 2005 and 2016.
They found that 88 per cent – roughly seven in eight – of children who had undergone an operation to remove their tonsils were unlikely to benefit from the procedure.
On the other hand, many other children who may have benefited from having their tonsils removed missed out on the surgery.
The popularity of tonsil removals has already plummeted. In the 1950s, almost 250,000 tonsillectomies were done a year on the NHS. Today the figure is nearer 40,000.
The reduction in operations is part of an NHS drive to to cut back on a number of ‘unnecessary procedures’ taking place in the UK annually, where the ‘risks outweigh the benefits’.
The researchers, writing in the British Journal of General Practice, predict 32,500 of the 37,000 tonsillectomies carried out among children on the NHS each year could be avoided.
That would save £37million a year.
According to NHS guidelines, children should only have their tonsils removed if they have had more than seven sore throats in a year, more than five sore throats per year for two successive years, or three sore throats per year for three successive years.
But of the children whose records they analysed, the researchers found 12.4 per cent of those who had an operation had reported only five or six sore throats in a year.
Some 44.7 per cent had suffered two to four sore throats in a year and 9.9 per cent had just one sort throat in a year.
Professor Tom Marshall, of the University of Birmingham, said: ‘Research shows that children with frequent sore throats usually suffer fewer sore throats over the next year or two.
‘In those children with enough documented sore throats, the improvement is slightly quicker after tonsillectomy, which means surgery is justified.
‘But research suggests children with fewer sore throats don’t benefit enough to justify surgery, because the sore throats tend to go away anyway.’
He added: ‘Our research showed that most children who had their tonsils removed weren’t severely enough affected to justify treatment.
‘While on the other hand, most children who were severely enough affected with frequent sore throats did not have their tonsils removed.
‘The pattern changed little over the 12 year period.
‘Children may be more harmed than helped by a tonsillectomy.
‘We found that even among severely affected children only a tiny minority ever have their tonsils out.
‘It makes you wonder if tonsillectomy is ever really essential in any child.’
It comes after a previous study, published in June, suggested that removing tonsils in childhood could raise the risk of health problems later on.
That research, by the University of Melbourne in Australia, found children who had their tonsils removed before the age of ten were at three times the risk of throat, nose and sinus infections as adults.
By contrast, the risk of tonsillitis – which the surgery was meant to treat – was barely reduced in the long term.
The NHS announced in June tonsillectomies were on its list of 17 routine procedures facing the axe, as officials seek to save the cash-strapped service £200million.
Among the minor operations listed by health chiefs were varicose vein surgery and breast reductions.
Such treatments have been highlighted as ‘ineffective or risky’ and should be offered only if they are judged to be of ‘compelling’ benefit and there are no alternatives.
Studies have shown that patients who undergo a tonsillectomy face almost triple the risk of catching a disease of the upper respiratory tract.
And similar to all types of surgery, the operation to remove the tonsils carries the risk of bleeding, infections and reactions to anaesthesia.
Surgeons redefined the criteria for undergoing the procedure because of the high rate of the procedure in the 1950s – leading to the decline in recent years.