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Understanding Tonsillitis -- the Basics

What Is Tonsillitis?

The tonsils are two masses of lymphatic (immune system) tissue located at the back of the throat. They produce antibodies designed to help you fight respiratory infections. They are small at birth and gradually increase in size until age 8 or 9. They begin to shrink around aqe 11 or 12 but never entirely disappear. When these tissues become infected, the resulting condition is called tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis most commonly affects children between the ages of 3 and 7, when tonsils may play their most active infection-fighting role. As the child grows and the tonsils shrink, infections become less common. Tonsillitis is usually not serious unless a tonsillar abscess develops. When this happens, the swelling can be severe enough to block your child's breathing. Ear infections and adenoid problems (swellings at the back of the nasal cavity above the tonsils) may occur at the same time.

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What Causes Tonsillitis?

Most tonsil infections in elementary school-age children are caused by viruses. The likely viruses include those that cause the common cold, influenza (flu) viruses, and the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), which also causes mononucleosis, or "mono." Some types of bacteria can also cause tonsillitis. The most common bacteria are the same organisms which cause strep throat. Tonsillitis is caused by strep throat in kids only about 30% of the time, and less so in adults.

These germs are transmitted by casual contact with others -- like droplets in the air from sneezing. Sometimes transmission occurs by oral contact, especially in the case of EBV (which is why mono is often called "the kissing disease"). The tonsils try to fight viruses and bacteria that enter through our mouth and nose. The result is an infection in the tonsils which can then swell, becoming inflamed and painful.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 11, 2015

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