What is Tonsillitis? Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Complications

If you have tonsillitis, your tonsils have become infected and inflamed. Your tonsils are two small glands located at the back of the throat. They form part of the immune system and help filter out harmful viruses and bacteria that enter the human body through the nose and mouth.

Causes of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is the result of a bacterial or viral infection. The most common infection in humans is with the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. This bacterium can also cause strep throat.

The viruses that cause influenza (flu) or the common cold can also infect and inflame the tonsils.

According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH):

“Tonsillitis, or inflammation of the tonsils, is a common disease and makes up approximately 1.3% of outpatient visits. It is predominantly the result of a viral or bacterial infection and, when uncomplicated, presents as a sore throat.”

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms have similar meanings but are used in different situations. If only the patient senses or detects something, it is a symptom. A headache, for example, is a symptom. A skin rash, on the other hand, which the patient and other people can detect, is a sign. Another example of a sign is a swollen ankle and a symptom is vision problems.

If you have tonsillitis, you will probably experience these most common signs and symptoms:

  • A sore throat.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Swollen tonsils.
  • Fever.
  • Swollen glands (swollen lymph nodes in the neck).
  • Feeling sick.
  • You may also have bad breath, ear pain, and a scratchy/muffled voice.

Viral infections tend to be milder than bacterial ones.

Treatment for tonsillitis

Treatment depends on what is causing the infection.

  • Viral infections

The focus here is on managing symptoms, which may include taking OTC painkillers, drinking plenty of fluids, and resting. OTC stands for over the counter. OTC medications do not require a doctor’s prescription.

  • Bacterial infections

In this case, the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. If the infection is recurrent, the doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, i.e., the surgical removal of the tonsils.

The UK’s National Heath Service says the following about what a pharmacist can do for you:

“Speak to a pharmacist about tonsillitis. They can give advice and suggest treatments, like: lozenges, throat sprays, and antiseptic solutions.”

Bacteria - Viruses - causes of Tonsillitis

Wikipedia image adapted by medicalvocab.com


Tonsillitis is rarely a serious illness and resolves either on its own or with treatment.

Possible complications if the infection is left untreated, include the formation of abscesses in the tonsils, rheumatic fever, and ear infections.

Rheumatic fever, which is a very rare complication, can cause inflammation of the joints, heart, and other parts of the body.

Prevention of tonsillitis

  • Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap.
  • Stay away from anybody who has tonsillitis or a sore throat.
  • If anybody in your household is infected, avoid sharing food, drinking glasses, plates, and eating utensils with them.
  • If your child is ill, keep them at home. Ask your doctor when they can go out, see friends, or return to school.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the inside of your elbow.
  • Teach your child good hand hygiene and how to sneeze or cough.
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