What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis refers to the inflammation of a tonsil--the large, fleshy, oval glands that lie in the lateral wall of the oral pharynx on either side of the throat. These glands contain cells that make antibodies that help fight infection.

What causes tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis can be caused by bacteria or viruses. Causes of tonsillitis include:

  • Streptococcus (commonly referred to as "strep") bacteria (the most common cause of tonsillitis)

  • Adenoviruses

  • The Epstein-Barr virus (infectious mononucleosis) 

  • The herpes simplex virus

  • Cytomegalovirus

  • Measles virus 

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

The following are the most common symptoms for tonsillitis. But each person may have slightly different symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Swollen, red tonsils (often coated with a yellow, gray, or white membrane)

  • Blisters or painful ulcerated areas on the throat

  • Sudden onset sore throat

  • Pain or difficulty with swallowing

  • Snoring

  • Foul breath

  • Headache

  • Loss of appetite

  • Malaise

  • Chills

  • Fever

  • Swollen and tender lymph nodes in the neck or jaw area

These symptoms may also occur if your child has a peritonsillar abscess:

  • Severe throat pain

  • Muffled voice 

  • Drooling

  • Difficulty opening mouth

The symptoms of tonsillitis may resemble other conditions or health problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Can tonsillitis be prevented?

These suggestions may help to stop the spread of the contagious illnesses that are generally responsible for the spread of tonsillitis:

  • Keep your (and your child's) distance from anyone with tonsillitis or a sore throat.

  • Do not share utensils, drinking glasses, toothbrushes, or other objects with anyone who has tonsillitis or a sore throat.

  • Wash your (and your child's) hands frequently.

  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and teach your children to do the same.

It is also possible that someone (especially a child) is carrying the strep bacteria (a common cause of tonsillitis) without presenting any symptoms of the infection. This person acts as a "carrier" and can transmit the infection to another person.

Treatment for tonsillitis

Specific treatment for tonsillitis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Cause of the infection

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Tonsillitis caused by a viral infection is treated differently than tonsillitis caused by a bacterial infection. Generally, tonsillitis caused by a bacterial strep infection can be successfully treated with an antibiotic medication. Viral tonsillitis is not treated with antibiotic medications because antibiotics are ineffective at defeating viral infections, but may be treated with other antiviral medications. With chronic and recurrent tonsillitis, a surgical procedure to remove the tonsils may be recommended. 

If a peritonsillar abscess has developed, urgent treatment to prevent airway obstruction may be required.