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Tonsillitis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

At the back of your throat, two masses of tissue called tonsils act as filters, trapping germs that could otherwise enter your airways and cause infection. They also produce antibodies to fight infection. But sometimes the tonsils themselves become infected. Overwhelmed by bacteria or viruses, they swell and become inflamed, a condition known as tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis is common, especially in children. The condition can occur occasionally or recur frequently.

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Causes and Symptoms of Tonsillitis

Bacterial and viral infections can cause tonsillitis. A common cause is Streptococcus (strep) bacteria. Other common causes include:

  • Adenoviruses
  • Influenza virus
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Parainfluenza viruses
  • Enteroviruses
  • Herpes simplex virus

The main symptoms of tonsillitis are inflammation and swelling of the tonsils, sometimes severe enough to block the airways. Other symptoms include:

  • Throat pain or tenderness
  • Redness of the tonsils
  • A white or yellow coating on the tonsils
  • Painful blisters or ulcers on the throat
  • Hoarseness or loss of voice
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Ear pain
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing through the mouth
  • Swollen glands in the neck or jaw area
  • Fever, chills
  • Bad breath

In children, symptoms may also include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

 

Treatments for Tonsillitis

Treatment for tonsillitis will depend in part on the cause. To determine the cause, your doctor may perform a rapid strep test or throat swab culture. Both tests involve gently swabbing the back of the throat close to the tonsils with a cotton swab. A lab test can detect a bacterial infection. A viral infection will not show on the test, but may be assumed if the test for bacteria is negative.

If tests reveal bacteria, treatment will consist of antibiotics to cure the infection. Antibiotics may be given as a single shot or taken 10 days by mouth. Although symptoms will likely improve within two or three days after starting the antibiotic, it's important to take all of the medication your doctor prescribes to make sure the bacteria are gone. Some people need to take a second course of antibiotics to cure the infection.

If the tonsillitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't work and your body will fight off the infection on its own. In the meantime, there are things you can do to feel better, regardless of the cause. They include:

  • Get enough rest
  • Drink warm or very cold fluids to ease throat pain
  • Eat smooth foods, such as flavored gelatins, ice cream, or applesauce
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier in your room
  • Gargle with warm salt water
  • Suck on lozenges containing benzocaine or other anesthetics
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

 

When Tonsillectomy Is Needed

Tonsils are an important part of the immune system throughout life, so it is best to avoid removing them.  However, if tonsillitis is recurrent or persistent, or if enlarged tonsils cause upper airway obstruction or difficulty eating, surgical removal of the tonsils, called tonsillectomy, may be necessary. Most tonsillectomies involve using a conventional scalpel to remove the tonsils; however there are many alternatives to this traditional method. Increasingly doctors are using techniques such as lasers, radio waves, ultrasonic energy, or electrocautery to cut, burn, or evaporate away enlarged tonsils.

As with all surgeries, each of these has benefits and drawbacks. When considering the procedure, it's important to discuss your options with the surgeon to select the most appropriate one for your child.

WebMD Medical Reference

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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