The tonsils at the back of the throat are oval-shaped lymph nodes/glands that help filter out and fight bacteria and viruses. By isolating the pathogens, the tonsils help slow or stop the infection from spreading to other areas of the body. Every year, millions of people are affected by an inflammation of the tonsils, known as tonsillitis, typically due to germs like viruses (cold, flu, etc.) and, when caused by bacteria, most often Streptococcus A (strep throat).
Causes of Tonsillitis
While the causes of tonsillitis are pathogens like viruses and bacteria, other factors that can contribute to the development or worsening of tonsillitis include:
- Allergies and irritants
- Poor nutrition
- Weakened immune system
The causes of tonsillitis may vary between age groups, with children aged 5 to 15 being more susceptible to bacterial tonsillitis than adults.
Symptoms of Tonsillitis
The symptoms of tonsillitis can vary depending on the type of infection and the severity of the inflammation. For example, those with more severe symptoms or naturally larger tonsils may have difficulty swallowing or even breathing because of this inflammation. Common symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Red and swollen tonsils
- Fever over 100.4
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- White patches on the tonsils
- Bad breath
While symptoms can be similar, a common sore throat/pharyngitis occurs due to inflammation in the throat, while tonsillitis represents an infection of the tonsils.
Diagnosing and Treating Tonsilitis
Tonsillitis is usually transient, with symptoms quickly worsening and then improving over a few to several days, depending on the cause of the infection. If symptoms persist for more than four days, visiting your family physician or an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist like Dr. Boger is important. Diagnostic testing typically consists of a physical exam followed by a throat culture or strep test to see if the cause is bacterial.
Tonsillitis caused by viruses is typically treated with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers.
Tonsillitis caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics. Continue your antibiotic regimen through completion, even if symptoms have subsided. This ensures that the infection is eliminated.
Note: Because of the potentially highly contagious nature of the underlying virus or bacteria, we advise minimizing exposure to those around you by isolating for a few days as you would for any infectious illness.
Tonsilitis will cause significant discomfort, but lozenges and gargling with a saltwater solution can help soothe the pain.
A few patients will experience severe and/or recurrent tonsillitis. At this point, it is reasonable to discuss a tonsillectomy surgical procedure involving removing the tonsils under general anesthesia in an outpatient surgery setting. While tonsillectomies were once a very common course of treatment, with upwards of 1,000,000 procedures performed each year in the middle of the 20th century, we now know that the procedure should be considered in a narrower band of circumstances. For qualifying patients, tonsillectomy is still a viable and essential course of treatment. Learn more about tonsillectomies.
Tonsils are part of the body’s immune system, and preventing tonsillitis entirely is as impractical as preventing its root illness. However, by practicing good hygiene, like washing hands and avoiding people who are ill, we can reduce the likelihood of tonsillitis. Further, stopping smoking, staying away from secondhand smoke, and avoiding air pollution can be very helpful in minimizing the occurrence of underlying infection.
For more information about treatment for tonsillitis, we encourage you to schedule a consultation with Dr. Boger.