Tonsillitis: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

By | Last Updated: 21st June 2019 | This post may contain Affiliate Links

Tonsillitis is a common throat problem, which is caused by the inflammation of the tonsils. It can affect both children and adults, however it’s most common in younger people.

Generally, it’s normally caused by a viral infection, and can sometimes be caused by a bacterial infection too. Tonsillitis isn’t regarded as a serious condition, however you will need to see your doctor if any symptoms last longer than four days and are not improving. Usually most people who have a tonsil problem will have difficulty swallowing, eating or drinking.


What are Tonsils?

The tonsils are technically known as a collection of ‘lymphoid tissue’, this basically means they are a ‘mass’ located on either side at the back of the throat.

The tonsils actually do a really important job, they are the ‘first line’ of defence against ‘foreign pathogens’. This means they attempt to protect the body against harmful bacteria and infections.

The tonsils have a specialised surface that is designed to ‘grab’ these pathogens before they enter the main parts of the human body. A basic way to look at the tonsils is kind of like a vacuum cleaner. The tonsils typically reach their largest size near puberty, and can sometimes ‘shrink’ gradually thereafter.


Common Symptoms of Tonsillitis

• A sore throat
• Pain when swallowing
• Hoarse or No Voice
• Coughing
• High temperature over 38C (100.4F)
• Earache
• Headache
• Feeling sick
• Feeling tired

Remember…. Please remember this page is a “general guide only”, it’s not official medical advice. It’s always recommended to get professional guidance and diagnosis from your GP.

Tonsillitis is a common issue, which can affect a lot of people throughout the UK. There’s a common myth that it can only affect children, it also affects adults too.

Generally you will find that symptoms should start reducing after 4 days or so. If you find that symptoms are not clearing or they’re getting worse, you need to seek professional medical assistance from your doctor or a walk-in clinic.


What Causes Tonsillitis?

You will usually find that most cases of infected tonsils are caused by viral infections. These are typically related to the ‘common cold’ or a flu virus. As Britain has several changes in the seasons each year, it can be quite easy for a viral infection to occur.

As tonsillitis is normally spread due to a viral infection. This means you have to be aware of being in ‘close contact’ which someone who you may suspect of having an infection. Generally, when a person coughs or sneezes, they release millions of tiny particles and droplets from their mouth and nose. People become infected by ‘breathing in’ the infected droplets.

Sometimes tonsillitis can happen due to a bacterial infection too, this however is much rarer and less common than a viral infection. Just like most common infections, they can easily be spread.

Tonsillitis itself isn’t ‘contagious’, however you can keep the chance of developing tonsillitis lower, if you follow this advice:

• Washing your hands is always the best thing you can do. Wash before and after going to the toilet and before eating.

• Cough / Sneeze into a tissue and put it in the bin as soon as your finished. Don’t leave it hanging around in a pocket and re-use it.

• Be aware of public places, if you have a cold or know somebody that does, going to work, nursery or a school can easily spread any infections further.

Tonsillitis in Adults

Should I Visit a Doctor?

It’s always recommended to visit your GP, even if you think it’s a ‘minor’ issue, your doctor is the best person to make that judgement.

At the doctors surgery, your throat will be examined, this is a painless process usually conducted with a torch. Sometimes they may take a ‘swab’. This will be sent to a local hospital for testing and analysis under a microscope. Just like other tests, you will have to wait a few days for the results.

If your doctor states your tonsils are inflamed because of a viral infection, this will most likely clear up with over the counter medicines. If your tonsillitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your GP will prescribe some antibiotics.

Please remember, you cannot ‘self-diagnosis’ which form of infection it is, only a trained medical professional can do this.

If you’re over 16 you may find that your doctor recommends running additional tests to check your overall health. This is pretty standard and should not cause any alarm. You will most likely have a blood test. The reason why GP’s like to do this, is because inflamed tonsils can be a sign of other conditions such as glandular fever.


How to Treat Tonsillitis

There’s no particular treatment for tonsillitis, usually the recommended advice is to visit a doctor if your condition has been present for more than four days, or it’s getting worse. Your GP will offer further advice on how to treat inflamed tonsils, you may be able to reduce your symptoms by taking ibuprofen or paracetamol, resting your body and drinking plenty of fluids when you’re awake.

Please remember you should not give aspirin to children under 16, also read all of the medicine instructions before taking.

Usually a doctor will only prescribe antibiotics if test results show you have a bacterial infection. If this bacterial infection doesn’t clear up with a course of antibiotics you may be referred to an ENT specialist at your local hospital.

An ENT professional will look into your mouth to see how inflamed your tonsils are. If you’ve had several ‘bouts’ of tonsillitis over a sustained period of time, then an ENT specialist may recommend having the tonsils removed (tonsillectomy).

Even though a tonsillectomy is a ‘simple’ procedure compared to other conditions, no surgery is without risk. It will be preformed under general anaesthetic, however most surgeries are now conducted as a ‘day’ service. This means you will be in and out of the hospital in the same day.

According to the Royal College of Surgeons, there were 10,155 tonsillectomies in children and 2,228 in adults in England in 2014. For more information on the positives and negatives of a tonsillectomy and how they may benefit or affect your own personal circumstances, it’s recommended to speak professional advice. From your healthcare professional, such as your ENT specialist or GP.


Complications of Tonsillitis

Typically it’s very rare to have any complications from tonsillitis, although it obviously can happen. Usually it will affect bacterial infections rather than viral infections. This is because complications can arise from bacterial infections as they can spread to other area of the body.

Complications of Tonsillitis can include:

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) – This condition is when the ‘sides’ of the throat relax when a person is sleeping, this can cause poor sleeping patterns and breathing difficulties.

Abscess – Sometimes an abscess may develop between a tonsil and the wall of the throat. This will usually ‘collect’ pus, and it’s not uncommon for them to ‘break’.

Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection) – As the throat and ears are connected it’s easy to see how it may affect other areas of the body. A middle eat infection is when fluid between the eardrum and inner ear becomes infected by bacteria.

Scarlet Fever – This is a condition, which usually causes a skin rash. You will find that the skin appears in a pink / red colour.

Rheumatic Fever – Typically only present in bacterial infections, this can cause inflammation throughout the body. Sometimes people can experience rashes, jerky body movements and pain at the joints.

Quinsy – See below

Should I go to A&E?

Tonsillitis usually clears up on it’s own or with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor. However on some rare occasions Quinsy is a complication of tonsillitis and will require urgent medical assistance.

This usually occurs in young adults and teenagers; here are some of the signs to look for:

• Swelling inside of the mouth and throat

• A SEREVE sore throat that is quickly getting worse

• Difficulty when opening the mouth

• Difficulty with breathing

• Difficulty when swallowing

• Difficulty when attempting to speak
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