What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is inflammation and contagious infection of your tonsils, which are located on each side in the back of your throat.

Tonsils are an integral part of the lymphatic system that help clear infection and keep body fluids in balance. In conjunction with the adenoids, tonsils trap germs that come through the mouth and nose.

Common related conditions
Laryngitis Strep Throat Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection)

Causes of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis can be caused by bacteria or virus, such as influenza or herpes simplex virus. It often accompanies colds and other respiratory infections, which can be easily passed through airborne and surface exposure.

Your tonsils are the first line of protection from bacteria and viruses that pass through your mouth, so they are quite susceptible to infection.

Risk factors for tonsillitis

Children in daycare and school settings are most at risk for tonsillitis, since they are frequently exposed to germs that can cause infection.

Tonsillitis caused by a virus is more common in young children, and tonsillitis caused by bacteria is most common in children ages 5-15. Tonsillitis is not common in adults.

Symptoms of tonsillitis

Symptoms of tonsillitis are:

  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • Sore throat 
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unusual bad breath
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Stiff or tender neck

Diagnosis of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is diagnosed by a primary care doctor who will examine your throat and tonsils.

During a physical exam, your doctor will look for red or white spots on the tonsils and swollen lymph nodes.

To confirm the symptoms are not caused by strep throat, they may also take a throat swab culture by collecting a sample and sending to a laboratory to identify a virus or bacteria.

Treatments for tonsillitis

If tonsillitis is caused by bacterial infection, antibiotics will be prescribed.

In cases of viral infection, antibiotics aren’t effective, but symptoms can be treated with:

  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Warm, hydrating fluids
  • Throat lozenges
  • Rest – extra sleep helps your immune system fight the infection
  • Gargle with warm saltwater
  • Air humidifier – helps prevent you from breathing in dry air

Chronic, recurring tonsillitis may warrant a tonsillectomy, a surgical removal of the tonsils, performed by an ENT specialist (otolaryngologist).

Recovery from tonsillitis

Tonsillitis symptoms usually pass in three to five days. If bacterial, you’re no longer contagious after 24 hours on antibiotics, but you should continue the full dose of antibiotic treatment.

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