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Tonsillitis is an infection and swelling of the tonsils, which are oval-shaped masses of lymph gland tissue located on both sides of the back of the throat.


The tonsils normally help to prevent infections. They act like filters to trap bacteria and viruses entering the body through the mouth and sinuses. The tonsils also stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies to help fight off infections. Anyone of any age can have tonsillitis; however, it is most common in children between the ages of five and 10 years.

Causes and symptoms

Tonsillitis is caused by viruses or bacteria that cause the tonsils to swell and become inflamed. A mild or severe sore throat is one of the first symptoms of tonsillitis. Symptoms can also include fever, chills, tiredness, muscle aches, earache, pain or discomfort when swallowing, and swollen glands in the neck. Very young children may be fussy and stop eating. When a doctor or nurse looks into the mouth with a flashlight, the tonsils may appear swollen and red. Sometimes, the tonsils will have white or yellow spots or flecks or a thin coating. Symptoms usually last four to six days.


The diagnosis of tonsillitis is made from the visible symptoms and a physical examination of the patient. The doctor will examine the eyes, ears, nose, and throat, looking at the tonsils for signs of swelling, redness, or a discharge. A careful examination of the throat is necessary to rule out diphtheria and other conditions that may cause a sore throat. Since most sore throats in children are caused by viruses rather than bacteria, the doctor may take a throat culture in order to test for the presence of streptococcal bacteria. A throat culture is performed by wiping a cotton swab across the tonsils and back of the throat, and sending the swab to a laboratory for culturing. Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacterium that causes strep throat, is the most common disease agent responsible for tonsillitis. Depending on what type of test is used for strep, the doctor may be able to determine within a few minutes if S. pyogenes is present. The quick tests for strep are not as reliable as a laboratory culture, which can take 24-48 hours. If the results of a quick test are positive, however, the doctor can prescribe antibiotics right away. If the quick test results are negative, the doctor can do a throat culture to verify the results and wait for the laboratory report before prescribing antibiotics. A blood test may also be done to rule out a more serious infection or condition, and to check the white blood cell count to see if the body is responding to the infection. In some cases, the doctor
The palatine, lingual, and pharyngeal tonsils.
The palatine, lingual, and pharyngeal tonsils.
(Illustration by Hans & Cassady, Inc.)
may order blood tests for mononucleosis, since about a third of patients with mononucleosis develop streptococcal infections of the tonsils.


Treatment of tonsillitis usually involves keeping the patient comfortable while the illness runs its course. This supportive care includes bed rest, drinking extra fluids, gargling with warm salt water, and taking pain relievers—usually NSAIDs—to reduce fever. Frozen juice bars and cold fruit drinks can bring some temporary relief of sore throat pain; drinking warm tea or broth can be soothing. If the throat culture shows that S. pyogenes is present, penicillin or other antibiotics will be prescribed. An injection of benzathine or procaine penicillin may be most effective in treating the infection, but it is also painful. If an oral antibiotic is prescribed, it must be taken for the full course of treatment, usually 10-14 days. If the patient has several episodes of severe tonsillitis, the doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, which is the surgical removal of the tonsils.

Alternative treatment

Strengthening the immune system is important whether tonsillitis is caused by bacteria or viruses. Naturopaths often recommend dietary supplements of vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and beta-carotenes—found naturally in fruits and vegetables—to ease inflammation and fight infection. A variety of herbal remedies also may be helpful in treating tonsillitis. Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and cleavers (Galium aparine) target the lymphatic system, while echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) stimulate the immune system. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), myrrh (Commiphora molmol), and bitter orange act as antibacterials. Lomatium dissectum and Ligusticum porteri have an antiviral action. Some of the homeopathic medicines that may be used to treat symptoms of tonsillitis include Belladonna, Phytolacca, Mercurius, Lycopodium, Lachesis, Hepar sulphuris, Arsenicum, or Rhus toxicodendron. As with any condition, the treatment and dosage should be appropriate for the particular symptoms and age of the patient.


Tonsillitis usually resolves within a few days with rest and supportive care. Treating the symptoms of sore throat and fever will make the patient more comfortable. If fever persists for more than 48 hours, however, or is higher than 102°F, the patient should be seen by a doctor. If antibiotics are prescribed to treat an infection, they should be taken as directed for the complete course of treatment, even if the patient starts to feel better in a few days. Prolonged symptoms may indicate that the patient has other upper respiratory infections, most commonly in the ears or sinuses. An abscess behind the tonsil (a peritonsillar abscess) may also occur. In rare cases, a persistent sore throat may point to more serious conditions, such as rheumatic fever or pneumonia.


The bacteria and viruses that cause tonsillitis are easily spread from person to person. It is not unusual for an entire family or several students in the same classroom to come down with similar symptoms, especially if S. pyogenes is the cause. The risk of transmission can be lowered by avoiding exposure to anyone who already has tonsillitis or a sore throat. Drinking glasses and eating utensils should not be shared and should be washed in hot, soapy water before reuse. Old toothbrushes should be replaced to prevent reinfection. People who are caring for someone with tonsillitis should wash their hands frequently, to prevent spreading the infection to others.



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Key terms

Streptococcus pyogenes — A common bacterium that causes strep throat and can also cause tonsillitis.
Tonsillectomy — A surgical procedure to remove the tonsils if the patient has recurrent sore throats or throat infections, or if the tonsils have become so swollen that the patient has trouble breathing or swallowing.
Tonsils — Oval-shaped masses of glandular tissue located on both sides at the back of the throat. Tonsils act like filters to trap bacteria and viruses.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


inflammation and enlargement of a tonsil, especially the palatine tonsils. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids need not be a cause for concern unless they become a source of chronic infection or interfere with swallowing or breathing. They may become enlarged in the process of filtering out frequent, mild infections. Also, the adenoids usually grow larger in children until about the age of 5 years, and then they may cease to be troublesome. Tonsils are part of the lymphatic system, which aids the body in fighting off infections and “invasions” of foreign matter. Although their exact purpose is unknown, they are believed to act as filters and fighters of bacteria, guarding the entrances to the throat and nasal passages. Sometimes, however, they are overcome by the invading bacteria and become infected. One form of infection sometimes causing tonsillitis is streptococcal infection of the throat.

Symptoms and Treatment. A mild case of tonsillitis may appear to be only a slight sore throat. Symptoms of acute tonsillitis are inflamed, swollen tonsils and a very sore throat, with high fever, rapid pulse, and general weakness. Swallowing is difficult and the lymph nodes in the neck may become swollen and painful. Occasionally in an attack of severe tonsillitis an abscess may form around the tonsil, a condition called quinsy. Treatment usually consists of administration of antibiotics, with gargles and rest. When tonsillitis is recurrent and troublesome, however, it may be necessary to remove the tonsils surgically (tonsillectomy).
follicular tonsillitis tonsillitis especially affecting the crypts.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Inflammation of a tonsil, especially of the palatine tonsil.
[tonsil + G. -itis, inflammation]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Inflammation of the tonsils.

ton′sil·lit′ic (-lĭt′ĭk) adj.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


ENT Inflammation of the tonsils, often due to bacterial or viral infection, which may expand locally, causing pharyngitis. See Tonsillectomy.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Inflammation of a tonsil, especially of the palatine tonsil.
[tonsil + G. -itis, inflammation]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


Inflammation of the TONSILS as a result of infection with one of a range of organisms. The tonsils are swollen and red and pus may be seen exuding from the tonsillar pits (crypts). There is pain in the throat, especially on swallowing, and often fever and headache. The lymph nodes in the neck are enlarged and may be tender. Tonsillitis responds well to antibiotic treatment.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


Inflammation of a tonsil.
[tonsil + G. -itis, inflammation]
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012