Tonsils are the oval-shaped areas of pink tissue on each side at the back of your throat. They help fight infection by reacting to germs and bacteria that enter through the nose and mouth.
Tonsillitis occurs when your tonsils are infected by a virus or by bacteria. This causes your tonsils to become inflamed and swollen. In most cases, when you have a sore throat or pharyngitis, you also have tonsillitis.
Tonsillitis symptoms can include any of the following:
If your tonsils become very swollen, you may also notice other symptoms. These may include sleep apnea (when breathing stops briefly during sleep), trouble swallowing food and a “throaty” voice.
Call the doctor if your child has a sore throat that won’t go away (even without a fever), if your child seems extremely ill, or if he or she is having trouble breathing or swallowing.
If you’re an adult who has symptoms of tonsillitis, you should contact your doctor, especially if you have one or more of the following:
An adult or child who can’t breathe or who begins drooling because he or she can’t swallow should get emergency care right away.
Most cases of tonsillitis are caused by viruses. For example, the virus that causes mononucleosis (called the Epstein-Barr virus) can cause tonsillitis. Tonsillitis is only caused by bacteria in about 15% to 30% of cases. Bacterial tonsillitis is most often caused by a certain type of streptococcus (or “strep”) bacteria. In these cases, the illness may be called “ strep throat.”
Your doctor will ask you what symptoms you have. He or she may also examine your ears, nose and throat to check for signs of infection.
Your doctor may use a swab to take a sample from the back of your throat. This sample may be used for a rapid strep test or a throat culture. A rapid strep test can show whether your infection is caused by strep bacteria in just a few minutes. A throat culture can show whether you have strep or another bacterial infection, but the results from this test aren’t available for 24 hours or more.
In some cases, your doctor may do a blood test to find out what is causing your infection. For example, a blood test can check for mononucleosis.
If your tonsillitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help. But you can use some home treatments to relieve your symptoms. You may try the following:
Antibiotics can treat tonsillitis caused by bacteria. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions and take all of the medicine. If you don’t, your infection may come back. Also, taking your antibiotics properly helps you reduce the risk of infecting other people. You won’t be contagious after about 24 hours of treatment.
If your tonsils are so swollen that they are making it hard to breathe, your doctor may prescribe treatment with steroids.
Surgery to take out the tonsils (called tonsillectomy) used to be fairly common. Now this surgery is only recommended in serious cases or if tonsillitis occurs frequently (called chronic tonsillitis). A tonsillectomy is usually an outpatient surgery, meaning you don’t have to stay in the hospital. However, adults rarely need a tonsillectomy.
If tonsillitis goes untreated, a collection of pus (called an abscess) can form in the back of the throat, behind the tonsils. If you have an abscess, your doctor will need to drain it with a needle. In severe cases, a tonsillectomy may be necessary to remove the abscess.
Tonsillitis is spread through contact with other people. Washing your hands frequently can help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils. Also, avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff