What is tonsillitis?
Tonsils are the two lymph
nodes located on each side of the back of your throat. They function as a
defense mechanism. They help prevent your body from infection. When the tonsils
become infected, the condition is called tonsillitis.
Tonsillitis can occur at
any age and is a common childhood infection. It is most often diagnosed in
children from preschool age through their midteens. Symptoms include a sore
throat, swollen tonsils, and fever.
This condition is contagious
and can be caused by a variety of common viruses and bacteria, such as
streptococcal bacteria, which causes strep throat. Tonsillitis caused by
strep throat can lead to serious complications if left untreated.
Tonsillitis is easily
diagnosed. Symptoms usually go away within seven to 10 days.
Causes of tonsillitis
Tonsils are your first
line of defense against illness. They produce white blood cells to help your
body fight infection. The tonsils combat bacteria and viruses that enter your
body through your mouth. However, tonsils are also vulnerable to infection from
Tonsillitis can be caused
by a virus, such as the common cold, or by a bacterial infection, such as strep
throat. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), an
estimated 15 to 30 percent of tonsillitis cases are due to bacteria. Most often
is it strep bacteria.
Viruses are the most
common cause of tonsillitis. The Epstein-Barr virus can cause tonsillitis,
which can also cause mononucleosis.
Children come into close
contact with others at school and play, exposing them to a variety of viruses
and bacteria. This makes them particularly vulnerable to the germs that cause
Symptoms of tonsillitis
There are several types of
tonsillitis, and there are many possible symptoms that include:
- a very sore throat
- difficulty swallowing or painful
- a scratchy-sounding voice
- bad breath
- a stiff
- jaw and neck tenderness due to
swollen lymph nodes
- tonsils that appear red and swollen
- tonsils that have white or yellow
In very young children,
you may also notice increased irritability, poor appetite, or excessive
There are two types of
episodes of acute tonsillitis a year
- chronic tonsillitis: episodes last longer than acute tonsillitis in
addition to other symptoms that include:
- chronic sore throat
- bad breath, or halitosis
- tender lymph nodes in the neck
When to see a doctor
In rare cases, tonsillitis
can cause the throat to swell so much that it causes trouble breathing. If this
happens, seek immediate medical attention.
See a doctor if you
experience the following symptoms:
- fever that’s higher than 103˚F (39.5°C)
- muscle weakness
- neck stiffness
- sore throat that doesn’t go away
after two days
While some tonsillitis
episodes go away on their own, some may require other treatments.
How tonsillitis is diagnosed
Diagnosis is based on a
physical examination of your throat. Your doctor may also take a throat culture
by gently swabbing the back of your throat. The culture will be sent to a
laboratory to identify the cause of your throat infection.
Treatment for tonsillitis
A mild case of tonsillitis
does not necessarily require treatment, especially if a virus, such as a cold,
Treatments for more severe
cases of tonsillitis may include antibiotics or a tonsillectomy.
Antibiotics will be
prescribed to fight a bacterial infection. It’s important you complete the full
course of antibiotics. Your doctor may want you to schedule a follow-up visit
to ensure that the medication was effective.
Surgery to remove the
tonsils is called a tonsillectomy. This was once a very common procedure.
However, tonsillectomies today are only recommended for people who experience
chronic or recurrent tonsillitis. Surgery is also recommend to treat tonsillitis
that doesn’t respond to other treatment, or tonsillitis that causes
If a person becomes
dehydrated due to tonsillitis, they may need intravenous fluids. Pain medicines
to relieve the sore throat can also help while the throat is healing.
Home care tips to ease a sore throat
- drink plenty of fluids
- get lots of rest
- gargle with warm salt water several
times a day
- use throat lozenges
- use a humidifier to moisten the air
in your home
- avoid smoke
Also, you may want to use
over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Always check with your doctor before giving medications to children.
People who experience
chronic tonsillitis may start to experience obstructive sleep apnea. This happens
when the airway swells and prevents a person from sleeping well. It’s also possible the infection will worsen and
spread to other areas of the body.
This is known as tonsillar
cellulitis. The infection can also cause a person to develop a buildup of pus
behind the tonsils, which is known as peritonsilar abscess. This can require
drainage and more surgery.
If a person doesn’t take a full course of antibiotics or the
antibiotics don’t kill off the bacteria, it’s possible a person could develop complications.
These include rheumatic fever and poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis.
Tonsillitis is highly
contagious. To decrease your risk of getting tonsillitis, stay away from people
who have active infections. Wash your hands often, especially after coming into
contact with someone who has a sore throat, or is coughing or sneezing. If you
have tonsillitis, try to stay away from others until you are no longer
Outlook for tonsillitis
Swollen tonsils may cause
difficulty breathing, which can lead to disturbed sleep. Tonsillitis left
untreated can result in the infection spreading to the area behind the tonsils
or to the surrounding tissue.
Symptoms of tonsillitis
caused by a bacterial infection usually improve a few days after you begin
taking antibiotics. Strep throat is considered contagious until you have been
taking antibiotics for a 24-hour period.