Key Points about Tonsillitis

  • Tonsillitis occurs when the tonsils become inflamed from a viral or bacterial infection, causing a sore throat and trouble swallowing.
  • It is most common in children and teenagers.
  • Most cases of tonsillitis resolve on their own within ten days and can be treated at home with rest and over-the-counter medicines.
  • Tonsillitis that is caused by a bacterial infection will be treated with antibiotics.
  • Chronic or recurrent tonsillitis may require surgical removal of the tonsils to prevent the infection from returning.
Common related conditions
Strep Throat

Overview

The tonsils are two collections of lymph tissue located in the back of the throat. These lymph nodes help fight off infections and are particularly active during childhood and young adulthood.

Tonsillitis occurs when these tissues themselves become infected with a virus or bacteria, causing inflammation and swelling in the tonsils. This inflammation can lead to a sore throat and trouble swallowing.

Tonsillitis occurs most often in children and teenagers. Treatment involves managing symptoms at home until the infection subsides—unless the infection is bacterial, in which case your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

If tonsillitis occurs often, lasts for a long period of time, or does not respond to antibiotics, your doctor may recommend that the tonsils be surgically removed through a tonsillectomy. Your doctor can identify the cause of your tonsillitis, assess its severity, and help set up an appropriate treatment plan. 

Tonsillitis causes

Tonsillitis is generally caused by a viral infection, although it can result from a bacterial infection as well. Because the tonsils act as an initial immune defense against pathogens, they are at a high risk of becoming infected—particularly in children and teenagers, whose tonsils are more active than those of adults.

Tonsillitis risk factors

Children between ages 5 and 15 are most likely to develop tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis symptoms

Tonsillitis may cause:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Tonsils that are red and swollen
  • Tonsils that are covered with white or yellow patches
  • Voice distortion
  • Smelly breath
  • Body aches, headaches and neck stiffness

Tonsillitis complications

In some cases, tonsillitis can lead to:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Sleep disruption
  • An abscess to develop behind the tonsils
  • A spreading infection

Tonsillitis diagnosis

When diagnosing tonsillitis, your child’s doctor will conduct a physical examination, which may involve:

  • Viewing the throat, ears and nose with a lighted instrument
  • Checking for swollen lymph nodes
  • Using a stethoscope to listen to his or her breathing
  • Looking for any skin rashes that can accompany infections
  • Assessing whether the spleen is enlarged

Your doctor may also perform:

  • A throat swab, to look for any streptococcal bacteria
  • A complete blood cell count, or CBC

Tonsillitis treatment

Most cases of tonsillitis can be treated at home by:

  • Getting enough rest
  • Gurgling a warm saltwater mixture
  • Staying hydrated
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers as needed

If a bacterial infection is the cause of tonsillitis, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

If your tonsillitis recurs frequently, lasts for a long period of time, or does not respond to antibiotics in the case of a bacterial infection, your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, or a surgical removal of the tonsils.

When to seek care

Seek care immediately if your child:

  • Is having trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Is drooling
  • Has a sore throat that lasts longer than one or two days?

Next Steps

After identifying the cause of your tonsillitis, your doctor can work with you to set up an appropriate treatment plan—particularly if the condition is chronic.