What are tonsils and what is tonsillitis?
What are tonsils and what is tonsillitis?
Tonsils are made of soft glandular tissue and are part of the immune system. You have two tonsils, one on either side at the back of the mouth. The picture shows normal non-infected tonsils.
Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils. A sore throat is the common symptom. In addition, you may also have a cough, fever, headache, feel sick, feel tired, find swallowing painful, and have swollen neck glands. The tonsils may swell and become red. Pus may appear as white spots on the tonsils. Symptoms typically get worse over 2-3 days and then gradually go, usually within a week.
What is the treatment for tonsillitis?
- Not treating is an option as many tonsil infections are mild and soon get better.
- Have plenty to drink. It is tempting not to drink very much if it is painful to swallow. You may become mildly dehydrated if you don't drink much, particularly if you also have a fever. Mild dehydration can make headaches and tiredness much worse.
- Paracetamol or ibuprofen ease pain, headache, and fever. To keep symptoms to a minimum it is best to take a dose at regular intervals as recommended on the packet of medication rather than 'now and then'. For example, take paracetamol four times a day until symptoms ease.
- Aspirin gargles may ease the soreness. (There is little research evidence that confirms this. However, it is a popular treatment and may be worth a try.) Dissolve some soluble aspirin in water and gargle for 3-4 minutes. You can do this 3-4 times a day. Swallow the aspirin after gargling for additional symptom relief, unless you are also taking ibuprofen tablets (in which case, spit our the aspirin after gargling). Note: children under 16 should not have aspirin.
- Other gargles, lozenges, and sprays that you can buy at pharmacies may help to soothe a sore throat. However, they do not shorten the illness.
Do I need an antibiotic?
Usually not. Most throat and tonsil infections are caused by viruses, although some are caused by bacteria. Without tests, it is usually not possible to tell if it is a viral or bacterial infection. Antibiotics kill bacteria, but do not kill viruses. However, even if a bacterium is the cause of a tonsil or throat infection, an antibiotic does not make much difference in most cases. Your immune system usually clears these infections within a few days whether caused by a virus or a bacterium. Also, antibiotics can sometimes cause side-effects such as diarrhoea, rash, and stomach upsets.
So, most doctors do not prescribe antibiotics for most cases of tonsillitis or sore throat.
An antibiotic may be advised in certain situations. For example, if the infection is severe, if it is not easing after a few days, or if your immune system is not working properly (for example, if you have had your spleen removed, if you are taking chemotherapy, etc).
Things to look out for
In nearly all cases, a tonsillitis or sore throat clears away without leaving any problems. However, occasionally a typical tonsillitis may progress to cause a complication. Also, a sore throat or tonsillitis is sometimes due to an unusual, but more serious, illness. Therefore, for the sake of completeness, the sort of things to look out for include the following:
Sometimes the infection can spread from the tonsils to other nearby tissues. For example, to cause an ear infection, sinus infection or chest infection.
Infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever)
Infectious mononucleosis is caused by a virus (the Epstein-Barr virus). It tends to cause a severe bout of tonsillitis in addition to other symptoms. See separate leaflet called 'Glandular Fever' for more details.
Quinsy - also known as peritonsillar abscess
Quinsy is an uncommon condition where an abscess (a collection of pus) develops next to a tonsil due to a bacterial infection. It usually develops just on one side. It may follow a tonsillitis or develop without a preceding tonsillitis. The tonsil on the affected side may be swollen or look normal, but is pushed towards the midline by the abscess next to the tonsil. Quinsy is very painful and can make you feel very unwell. It is treated with antibiotics, but also the pus often needs to be drained with a small operation.
Non-infective causes of a painful or swollen tonsil
These are rare. For example, cancer of the tonsil is rare, but pain can be the first symptom.
The 'take home' message is ... see a doctor if symptoms of a tonsillitis are severe, unusual, or if they do not ease within 3-4 days. In particular, seek urgent medical attention if you develop any difficulty breathing, drooling, a muffled voice, severe pain, difficulty swallowing or become very unwell.
What about having my tonsils taken out?
You may be advised to have your tonsils removed (tonsillectomy) if you have frequent and severe bouts of tonsillitis. This usually means five or more bouts of tonsillitis over a year. Also, when each infection is severe enough to affect normal life (such as needing time off work or school). The adenoids may also be removed at the same time for this reason. Although full-blown bouts of tonsillitis are prevented after tonsillectomy, other throat infections are not prevented. However, there is a good chance that the overall number and severity of throat infections will be reduced. Also, the risk of developing quinsy is reduced. Many people say they generally feel better in themselves after having their tonsils removed if they previously had frequent bouts of tonsillitis.
Tonsillectomy is usually a straightforward minor operation. But note, as with all operations there is a risk. For example, there is a small risk of life-threatening severe bleeding from the throat during and just after the operation.