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The tonsils are two oval-shaped masses of tissue in the back of the throat that act as your immune system’s first line of defense against germs and contaminants that enter the mouth. When the tonsils become infected, they become inflamed and swollen, which can lead to a sore throat and difficulty swallowing. The most common causes of tonsillitis are viral infections and bacterial infections such as strep throat.
- Sore throat
- Tenderness in the throat
- Red tonsils
- Whitish patches on the surface of the tonsils
- Difficulty swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Bad breath
- A scratchy or muffled voice
- Loss of appetite
- Neck pain or stiffness
Young children between the ages of 5 and 15 are most commonly affected by tonsillitis. While most infections are relatively mild and easily treatable with medication, bacterial infections of the tonsils (such as strep) can lead to more serious conditions such as rheumatic and scarlet fever, breathing problems, and sinusitis (the inflammation of the sinuses). Because of this, if you suspect that you or your child has contracted tonsillitis, talk to your health care provider. The bacteria and viruses that cause the infection can be highly contagious; prompt treatment may be needed to prevent further infection and medical complications.
Tonsillitis is commonly diagnosed through a physical examination and a throat swab to get a sample of any bacteria that may be causing the infection.
Treatment for tonsillitis will depend on the cause of the infection. During your appointment, discuss your or your child’s symptoms with your health care provider to determine the treatment plan that’s right for you.
Viral infections will not respond to antibiotic treatment, so self-care methods are the best treatment for viral tonsillitis. If you or your child has been diagnosed with a bacterial infection, these methods can help relieve discomfort and reduce inflammation in the tonsils:
- Drink warm liquids such as herbal teas with lemon and honey can help relieve pain caused by a sore throat.
- Drink plenty of water to maintain hydration.
- Reduce or remove irritants such as pet dander, smoke, harsh chemicals, or mold from your home that may aggravate the sore throat.
- Use a cool-mist humidifier to moisten the air and reduce dryness that can worsen a sore throat.
- Gargle warm water with table salt - being sure to spit the solution out - to soothe soreness in the throat.
- Use an air purifier to help remove air pollution from your living spaces.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to reduce pain and inflammation caused by infected tonsils. If the infection is also causing a fever, these medications can help manage fever symptoms as well.
For bacterial infections of the tonsils, doctors will usually prescribe a course of antibiotics meant to be taken over several days. Penicillin is the most common antibiotic used to treat bacterial tonsil infections. Continue to take this medication until the end of the prescription, even if symptoms have gone away. Bacterial infections can recur if not treated completely, so continue to take the medication as prescribed unless ordered otherwise by your health care provider.
For recurring tonsil infections or chronic tonsillitis, your health care provider may recommend a tonsillectomy procedure to remove the tonsils.
Tonsillectomy is an outpatient procedure that rarely requires an overnight stay in the hospital. Once the anesthesia has worn off, the patient is usually free to go home. Recovery from a tonsillectomy usually takes about 7-10 days; during this time, the patient may experience some discomfort in the throat and neck. Talk to your health care provider about methods to mitigate this discomfort while recovering.