Condition: Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is a common health problem where the tonsils at the top of the throat become red swollen and painful due to a viral or bacterial infection.

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What is tonsillitis?

Tonsils are lymph nodes at the top of the throat that produce antibodies to help fight infection. Tonsilitis occurs when the tonsils become infected, causing them to become swollen and sore.

Tonsilitis is an extremely common health issue with most people experiencing it at least once in their lifetime. Although children are most commonly affected, anyone of any age can get tonsillitis.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

If you have tonsilitis, you may feel like you have a bad cold or the flu. Symptoms of tonsillitis  vary from person to person, but the most common to look out for include:

  • Red, swollen tonsils

  • A sore throat

  • Soreness or difficulty swallowing 

  • A high temperature A headache

  • Nausea

  • Earache

  • Fatigue

In severe cases of tonsillitis, symptoms can also include:

  • Neck pain or stiffness

  • Swollen, sore glands in your neck

  • Bad breath

  • White patches or pus-filled spots on your tonsils

  • A muffled voice

What causes tonsillitis?

Your tonsils sit at the back of your mouth, right at the top of your throat. Because they are your immune system's first line of defence, they are particularly vulnerable to becoming infected.

In most cases, tonsillitis is caused by a viral infection like the cold or flu virus, but it can also be caused by a bacterial infection such as Group A Streptococcus. Bacterial tonsillitis is commonly called strep throat,

The viruses and bacteria that cause tonsillitis are highly contagious so are often passed on through:

  • Close contact with someone who’s ill

  • Inhaling airborne particles after a sick person sneezes or coughs

  • Kissing

  • Sharing utensils, food or drink

  • Touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose or mouth

How is tonsillitis diagnosed?

An ENT consultant can diagnose tonsillitis by examining your throat and looking for redness, swelling and/or white spots on your tonsils. Your specialist will ask you about your symptoms and how long you've had them, and may also look inside your ears and nose to look for other signs of infection.

They will also feel the sides of your neck to check whether your lymph nodes are swollen and tender. If a bacteria infection is suspected they might use a long cotton swab to take a sample of secretions from the surface of your tonsils.

What are the treatment options for tonsillitis?

In most cases, tonsillitis will resolve on its own after three to four days with good self-care. To help treat your symptoms at home make sure you:

  • Get plenty of rest and sleep

  • Drink plenty of cold and warm drinks to soothe your throat and stay hydrated

  • Suck on throat lozenges

  • Take paracetamol and ibuprofen regularly, as directed on the packet

  • Gargle warm salty water

If you have bacterial tonsillitis, you will need to take prescribed antibiotics for a few days.

If you have severe tonsillitis that is recurring, it may be appropriate to have your tonsils removed (tonsillectomy). Your ENT specialist will be able to talk you through whether this is the right option for you and what the procedure involves.