The tonsils are lumps of tissue located on either side of the back of the throat. They are part of the body’s immune system, designed to protect us by stopping bacteria and viruses from entering the body.
But sometimes infections are too much for the tonsils to handle, and these fighters of infection become infected themselves. When that happens, it’s called tonsillitis (pronounced: tahn-suh-LYE-tus).
Tonsillitis can be caused by viruses or certain types of bacteria. The tonsils may become red and swollen or have a white or yellow coating on them.
Signs and Symptoms
If you have healthy tonsils, you probably don’t even notice them — even if you look at the back of your throat in a mirror. The tonsils become a lot easier to see when someone has tonsillitis because they swell up and become red. Here are some of the signs of tonsillitis:
- sore throat, which can be mild to severe
- swelling of the tonsils
- swelling of the lymph nodes (glands) in your neck
- redness in the tonsils
- white spots or pus on the tonsils
- changes in your voice
- difficulty swallowing
If you have symptoms of tonsillitis, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor.
What Do Doctors Do?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your throat and neck. If your doctor thinks you have tonsillitis, he or she may use a soft swab to gently collect a sample from your tonsils and the back of your throat. It’s important for your doctor to know if streptococci bacteria are causing the infection. If you have strep throat, you’ll need treatment with an antibiotic to kill the bacteria. Not only will this help you feel better, it will also help prevent other problems that can come from untreated strep throat.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure to follow the directions carefully. You’ll need to finish taking all the medicine even if your symptoms go away and you feel better. That will prevent the infection from flaring up again and help protect you against any complications.
If a strep test comes back negative, it’s probably a virus causing the tonsillitis. If this is the case, antibiotics won’t help. Just like with a cold (also caused by a virus), you’ll have to take it easy for several days and let the virus run its course.
If you have frequent episodes of tonsillitis, your doctor or an otolaryngologist (pronounced: oh-toe-lar-un-GA-luh-jist, a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat problems) may recommend a tonsillectomy (pronounced: tahn-suh-LEK-tuh-mee). This is a surgical procedure to remove the tonsils. Tonsillectomy may also be recommended if the infection is not responding to antibiotics.
How Can I Prevent Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is contagious. This means you can get it from someone else who has it. Sneezing and coughing can pass the tonsillitis-causing virus or bacteria from one person to the next. But you can protect yourself from catching tonsillitis or passing it to somebody else with these precautions:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- If someone in your household or a friend has tonsillitis, don’t use that person’s cups, glasses, silverware, toothbrush, or other utensils. And if you have tonsillitis, keep your stuff separate and don’t share it with anyone.
- Don’t kiss your boyfriend or girlfriend until you’re completely over the tonsillitis.
- Once you’ve started the antibiotic for strep, throw out your toothbrush and buy a new one. That way you won’t reinfect yourself.
How Can I Feel Better?
If you have tonsillitis, take it easy. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. You can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve any pain or discomfort. (Don’t take aspirin or other products that contain aspirin, though, because these may put you at risk of developing Reye syndrome, an illness that can have serious complications.)
Call your doctor right away if your condition gets worse; for example, if you have difficulty breathing or swallowing. Also talk to your doctor if your fever comes back or if you’re not feeling better in a couple of days.
Avoid smoking or anything that will irritate your throat. It’s best to drink lots of liquids. You may prefer softer foods, like applesauce, flavored gelatin, or ice cream. If you don’t feel like eating, try drinking liquids that contain calories, such as fruit juices, milkshakes, and soups and broths.
If you’re on antibiotics, it’s usually OK to return to school 24 hours after you start taking them if your fever is gone and you feel better. If you’re still feeling weak, tired, or achy, it may be best to stay home for another day or two. Rest and relaxation sometimes can be the best medicine.
Reviewed by: Steven P. Cook, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013