Enlarged adenoids can become nearly the size of a ping pong ball and completely block airflow through the nasal passages. Even if enlarged adenoids are not substantial enough to physically block the back of the nose, they can obstruct airflow enough so that breathing through the nose requires an uncomfortable amount of work, and inhalation occurs instead through an open mouth. Adenoids can also obstruct the nasal airway enough to affect the voice without actually stopping nasal airflow altogether.
Nasal blockage is determined by at least two factors: 1) the size of the adenoids, and 2) the size of the nasal pharynx passageway. The adenoid usually reaches its greatest size by about age 5 years or so, and then fades away ("atrophies") by late childhood - generally by the age of 7 years. The lymphoid tissue remains under the mucosa of the nasopharynx, and could be seen under a microscope if the area was biopsied, but the mass is so reduced in size that the roof of the nasopharynx becomes flat rather than mounded. Just as the size of the adenoids is variable between individuals, so is the age at which adenoids atrophy.
The adenoids, like all lymphoid tissue, enlarge when infected. Although lymphoid tissue does act to fight infection, sometimes bacteria and viruses can lodge within it and survive. Chronic infection, either viral or bacterial, can keep the pad of adenoids enlarged for years, even into adulthood. Some viruses, such as the Epstein-Barr Virus, can cause dramatic enlargement of lymphoid tissue. Primary or reactivation infections with Epstein Barr Virus, and certain other bacteria and viruses, can even cause enlargement of the adenoidal pad in an adult whose adenoids had previously become atrophied.