Tonsillitis is inflammation (swelling) of the tonsils.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The tonsils are lymph nodes in the back of the mouth and top of the throat. They normally help to filter out bacteria and other germs to prevent infection in the body.
Strep throat is one cause of tonsilitis.
The tonsils may become so overwhelmed by a bacterial or viral infection that they swell and become inflamed, causing tonsillitis. The infection may also be present in the throat and areas around it, causing inflammation of the pharynx. The pharynx is in the back of the throat, between the tonsils and voicebox (larynx). See: Pharyngitis
Tonsillitis is very common, especially in children.
Signs and tests
The health care provider will look in the mouth and throat for swollen tonsils. The tonsils are usually red and may have white spots on them. The lymph nodes in the jaw and neck may be swollen and tender to the touch.
Tests that may be done include:
If bacteria such as strep are causing the tonsillitis, antibiotics are given to cure the infection. The antibiotics may be given once as a shot, or taken for 10 days by mouth.
If antibiotic pills are used, they must be taken for the entire amount of time prescribed by the doctor. DO NOT stop taking them just because the discomfort stops, or the infection may not be cured.
Other treatments include:
- Drink cold liquids or suck on popsicles
- Drink fluids, especially warm (not hot), bland fluids
- Gargle with warm salt water
- Suck on lozenges (containing benzocaine or similar ingredients) to reduce pain (these should not be used in young children because of the choking risk)
- Take over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen to reduce pain and fever. Do NOT give a child aspirin. Aspirin has been linked to Reye syndrome.
Some people who have repeated infections may need surgery to remove the tonsils (tonsillectomy).
Tonsillitis symptoms usually improve 2 or 3 days after treatment starts. The infection usually is cured after treatment is completed, but some people may need more than one course of antibiotics.
Complications of untreated strep tonsillitis may be severe. Children with tonsillitis related to strep throat or pharyngitis should generally be kept home from school or day care until they have been on antibiotics for 24 hours. This helps reduce the spread of illness.
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if there is:
- Excess drooling in a young child
- Fever, especially 101Â°F or higher
- Pus in the back of the throat
- Red rash that feels rough, and increased redness in the skin folds
- Severe difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Tender or swollen lymph glands in the neck
Wetmore RF. Tonsils and adenoids. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 380.
Del Mar CB, Glasziou PP, Spinks A. Antibiotics for sore throat. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008:(3):CD000023.
Chan TV. The patient with sore throat. Med Clin North Am. 2010. 94:923-943.
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.