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The tonsils are oval-shaped pieces of tissue situated at the back of the throat. They function as filters for what we eat or inhale and provide protection against infection. Tonsillitis occurs when the tonsils become inflamed due to viral or bacterial infection.

Tonsillitis Symptoms

Tonsillitis is most often seen in young children and teenagers. This is most likely because the immune function of the tonsils declines after puberty. Typical symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Tonsils that are red or swollen
  • Visible white or yellow spots on the tonsils
  • A low-grade fever
  • A sore throat and difficult or painful swallowing
  • Tender or enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
  • A stiff neck

A young child who is unable to verbalize symptoms may become irritable and fussy, refuse to eat, and may drool due to the pain associated with swallowing. Most cases of tonsillitis are mild and easily treated; however, in rare instances, the inflammation of the tonsils can cause difficulty breathing. It is also possible for the infection to spread into surrounding tissue or to develop into a pus pocket, or abscess, behind the tonsils.

Diagnosing Tonsillitis

Most cases of tonsillitis are diagnosed through a simple physical exam. The doctor will exam the ears, nose, and throat to check for signs of infection. The doctor will also gently palpate the neck to check for enlarged lymph nodes. The doctor will also check for an enlarged spleen. This could indicate mononucleosis, which can also cause inflamed tonsils.

Most doctors will also perform a throat swab to obtain a sample of the secretions. This will determine if the infection is caused by streptococcal bacteria or a virus. In some cases, a streptococcal infection may also be identified by the presence of fever and a red skin rash called scarletina.

Treatments and At-Home Therapies

Tonsillitis caused by bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. It is important to take the full course of antibiotics even if you start to feel better. Not completing the course of antibiotics can cause the infection to worsen or even spread to other parts of the body.

If the infection is viral, the only course of action is to manage the symptoms, which should resolve in a week to 10 days. The following can promote a faster recovery and make you feel more comfortable:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink warm liquids and eat cool foods, such as popsicles, to soothe the throat
  • Use a humidifier to eliminate dry air
  • Use non-aspirin pain relievers to treat fever and pain
  • Gargle with salt water

Surgery for Recurrent Tonsillitis

Your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy if you have chronic or recurrent tonsillitis. Tonsillitis is considered frequent if:

  • You have more than seven episodes in a year
  • You had more than three episodes in each of the last three years
  • You had more than four or five episodes in each of the past two years

A tonsillectomy may also be indicated if the condition is causing complications, such as difficulty breathing or swallowing. A tonsillectomy is normally an outpatient procedure with recovery taking one to two weeks.