Tonsillitis - Topic Overview

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What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection or inflammation of the tonsils camera.gif. The tonsils are balls of lymph 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.

Tonsillitis often goes away on its own after 4 to 10 days.

What causes tonsillitis?

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.

What are the symptoms?

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 camera.gif, 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.

How is tonsillitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will look at your throat to see if you have red and swollen tonsils camera.gif with spots or sores. These signs can mean you have tonsillitis.

Your doctor may do a rapid strep test along with a throat culture. 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.

You may have a test for mononucleosis if your doctor thinks that you have mono.

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How is it treated?

Tonsillitis caused by a virus will usually go away on its own. Treatment focuses on helping you feel better. You may be able to ease throat pain if you drink warm tea, take over-the-counter pain medicine, and use other home treatments. Do not give aspirin to anyone age 20 or younger. It is linked to a serious disease called Reye syndrome.

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.

As a rule, 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. You and your doctor can decide if surgery is the right choice after a careful review of your or your child's overall health.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about tonsillitis:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with tonsillitis:

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.© 1995-2015 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

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