Skip to content
Font Size
A
A
A

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.

Recommended Related to Oral Health

What Is Baby Bottle Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay in infants and very young children is often referred to as baby bottletooth decay. Baby bottletooth decay happens when sweetened liquids or those with natural sugars (like milk, formula, and fruit juice) cling to an infant's teeth for a long time. Bacteria in the mouth thrive on this sugar and make acids that attack the teeth. At risk are children whose pacifiers are frequently dipped in sugar or syrup. Giving an infant a sugary drink at nap time or nighttime is particularity harmful,...

Read the What Is Baby Bottle Tooth Decay? article > >

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

Hot Topics

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Popular Slideshows & Tools on WebMD

sore foot
3 warning signs.
acupuncture needle on shoulder
10 tips to look and feel good.
Epinephrine Injection using Auto-Injector Syringe
Life-threatening triggers.
disciplining a boy
Types, symptoms, causes.
psoriasis
What it looks like.
checking blood sugar
Symptoms and treatment.
man behind computer screen
10 possible causes.
Woman with itchy watery eyes
Common triggers.
man screaming
Making sense of symptoms.
human liver
What puts you at risk?
caregiver with parent
10 tips for daily life.
two male hands
Understanding RA.

Pollen counts, treatment tips, and more.

It's nothing to sneeze at.

Loading ...

Sending your email...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.

Thanks!

Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

Women's Health Newsletter

Find out what women really need.