Located in the back of throat, the tonsils are similar to the lymph nodes and also act to help fight infection. Also serving as a filter for the foods you eat and the air you breathe, tonsils sometimes become inflamed due to viral or bacterial infection. When this happens, it’s a condition known as tonsillitis. Fortunately, this condition is highly treatable and often involves a diet of soft foods during the recovery, if surgery is necessary.
Who Gets Tonsillitis?
Anyone can develop tonsillitis. However, it’s more common in children and teenagers. It’s likely a result of changes to the body’s immune functions during this time. The immune system functions of tonsils, in particular, decrease after puberty.
Possible Signs of Tonsillitis
A sore throat is usually the first and most noticeable indication of tonsillitis. Younger children who aren’t yet able to verbalize symptoms often act irritable or fussy and they may not want to eat because swallowing hurts. Some people experience a low-grade fever due to the related infection. In some instances, the infection may spread beyond the tonsils and pockets of pus may form (abscesses). Additional symptoms associated with tonsillitis include:
- Neck stiffness
- Tonsils that appear swollen or red
- Enlarged lymph nodes (in the neck)
- Yellow or white spots on tonsils
Making a Diagnosis
Tonsillitis can usually be diagnosed during a physical exam of the throat along with the nose, ears, and eyes to check for issues with infections. An examination usually includes checking the spleen for signs of enlargement that could suggest mononucleosis, a condition often linked to tonsillitis, and a throat swab.
Bacterial tonsillitis is typically treated with antibiotics, which should be taken as recommended even when symptoms go away. Viral tonsillitis often takes longer to treat since symptoms will need to managed over time, usually a week to 10 days. If symptoms aren’t improving by then, let your doctor know. Healing can be encouraged by:
- Making an effort to get more rest
- Gargling with a salt water solution
- Eating cool, soothing foods and drinking warm liquids
- Taking non-aspirin pain relievers like acetaminophen
- Using a humidifier
When Surgery Becomes an Option
Contrary to popular belief, surgery is not the go-to remedy for tonsillitis. It’s only when you’re having repeated throat infections, severe symptoms, and recurrent tonsillitis not responding to conservative (non-surgical) treatments that surgery becomes a consideration. Removal of the tonsils (tonsillectomy) is an outpatient procedure that most people recover from within a week or two. Surgery may be recommended if you experience:
- Multiple outbreaks of tonsillitis within a year (7 or more)
- Complications such as problems swallowing or breathing
- Repeated major episodes of tonsillitis within 1-2 years (4-5 episodes)
Simply having a sore throat doesn’t mean that you have tonsillitis. But if you are experiencing persistent throat irritations or not seeing relief from common home remedies or over-the-counter medications, it’s time to see your doctor. If there are signs you may have tonsillitis, you may be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist for further evaluation.