Tonsillitis is an infection or inflammation of the tonsils.
The tonsils are balls of lymphatic tissue on both sides of the throat, above and behind the tongue. They are part of the immune system, which helps the body fight infection.
Most often, tonsillitis is caused by a virus. Less often, it is caused by the same bacteria that cause strep throat. In rare cases, a fungus or a parasite can cause it.
Tonsillitis is spread through the air in droplets when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. You may then become infected after breathing in these droplets or getting them on your skin or on objects that come in contact with your mouth, nose, or eyes.
The main symptom of tonsillitis is a sore throat. The throat and tonsils usually look red and swollen. The tonsils may have spots on them or pus that covers them completely or in patches. Fever is also common.
If you feel like you have a cold, with symptoms such as runny and stuffy nose, sneezing, and coughing, a virus is most likely the cause. If you have a sore throat plus a sudden and severe fever and swollen lymph nodes, but you do not have symptoms of a cold, the infection is more likely caused by bacteria. This means you need to see a doctor and probably need a strep test.
Your doctor may do a rapid strep test along with a throat culture when diagnosing you. These will show whether the tonsillitis is caused by streptococcus bacteria. Your doctor may also ask about past throat infections. If you get tonsillitis often, it may affect the choice of treatment.
Tonsillitis often goes away on its own after 4 to 10 days if it is caused by a virus. Treatment focuses on helping you feel better. You may be able to ease throat pain by:
- Gargling with salt water
- Drinking warm tea
- Taking over-the-counter pain medicine
- Using other home treatments
If your tonsillitis is caused by strep, you need treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics can help prevent rare but serious problems caused by strep and can control the spread of infection.
Doctors only advise surgery to remove tonsils (tonsillectomy) when there are serious problems with the tonsils. These include infections that happen again and again, or long-lasting infections that do not get better after treatment and get in the way of daily activities.