Everything you need to know about tonsillitis

Written by: Top Doctors®
Published: | Updated: 26/10/2023
Edited by: Kate Forristal

Tonsillitis is a relatively common condition, which is an inflammation of the tonsils. It can be caused by either a viral infection or a bacterial one, although this is less common.

What are the tonsils?

The tonsils are located in the back of the throat – one on each side. If you open your mouth wide and look in the mirror, you can see them in the throat. They are part of the immune system, defending our bodies from infection. Having a sore throat, for example, is a sign that the tonsils are fighting off infection. The tonsils are especially important in young children, whose immune system is not as strong, as the tonsils isolate infection and prevent it from spreading to other areas of the body.


The causes of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is usually caused by a viral infection, such as the flu virus, or the common cold virus. Occasionally bacterial infections can also trigger tonsillitis. Tonsillitis is not catching, but the infections that cause it do, and can be easily spread. Take precautions: frequently wash your hands, cough and sneeze into a tissue, and if you show symptoms, try to stay away from public areas.


Symptoms of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis might feel like you have a bout of bad cold, or even flu, but there are symptoms that indicate you have the infection. You will likely notice that the tonsils are red and swollen, and you have a sore throat. Other symptoms to watch for are:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Coughing
  • A headache
  • Difficulty when swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Earache
  • Throat feels hoarse, or voice is gone
  • High temperature

These symptoms normally disappear after 3-4 days, and will go away on their own as your body fights off the infection naturally. It must run its course, but if symptoms become worse – white, pus-filled spots  appearing on the back of the throat, or painful gland swelling in the neck – you should see a doctor, especially if symptoms last more than a week.


Should I see a doctor?

Tonsillitis is often a viral infection, so it is a case of simply waiting it out. In order to help with pain and discomfort, however, rest is recommended, along with cool drinks and perhaps painkillers, in the right dosage for children. There are now solutions and sprays on the market that can be bought at the pharmacy to help with your sore throat. A doctor does not usually need to be consulted for this.


If symptoms develop and the tonsillitis shows no sign of going away, or is recurrent, a doctor may advise specific treatment.


With bacterial tonsillitis, you may be given a course of antibiotics. In severe cases, and especially if the infection frequently returns, surgery may be advised. Nowadays having the tonsils removed is rare, but it can be recommended in special cases where the patient’s life is disrupted. 


By Topdoctors
Otolaryngology / ENT

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