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What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection causing inflammation of your tonsils together with cold or flu like symptoms.  The tonsils are the two small oval shaped glands which lie either side of the back of the throat, they work similar to lymph glands by helping your body to fight off infections. Inflammation of the tonsils is usually the result of an infection which is most commonly caused by a virus but can also be the result of a bacterial infection.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

The symptoms of tonsillitis may include: –

  • Sore throat
  • Red and swollen tonsils
  • Difficulty swallowing and opening mouth
  • Hoarse or loss of voice
  • High temperature
  • Earache
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Cough

More severe symptoms can include: –

  • Swollen neck glands
  • White pus spots on tonsils
  • Bad breath

Tonsillitis usually gets better on its own without needing to see a GP but if symptoms do not get better after 3-4 days the you should contact your GP.

What causes tonsillitis?

The tonsils are part of your immune system and are often the body’s first line of defence, trapping germs before they make their way into the rest of the body. Tonsillitis is most commonly caused by a viral infection or, less often, a bacterial infection.  Tonsillitis itself is not contagious but the infections that cause it are, such as colds and flu. Bacterial tonsillitis is most commonly caused by a type of bacteria called a group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus, sometimes referred to as `strep throat’.

What are the risk factors?

Tonsillitis most often affects children between 5 and 15 years of age, although adults can still get it.  School age children are in close contact with their peers and are more frequently exposed to viruses or bacteria that can cause tonsillitis.

How is tonsillitis diagnosed?

Tonsillitis should normally run its course and symptoms should improve after 3-4 days.  If they don’t get better after 4 days, you have pus filled spots on the tonsils or your throat is so painful it’s difficult to eat or drink, see your GP.

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine throat. They are likely to use a small torch and a tongue depressor to gently push down the tongue to get a better view of the back of the throat and look for signs of infection. Your doctor may take a throat swab to test for bacteria, a  throat swab is like a large cotton bud and will be rubbed on the back of the throat. This can be then sent away for examination under a microscope. A blood test could also be carried out if glandular fever is suspected.

What treatment is there for tonsillitis?

In most cases, tonsillitis will usually get better on its own.  If the cause is a virus, antibiotics will not help.  Your doctor may suggest paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve any pain and bring down a high temperature.  You can purchase these from this website, click here for more information or to purchase.To avoid spreading the infection causing the tonsillitis you will be advised to stay off work or keep your child off school. The virus will need to run its course, but you can alleviate symptoms by resting, drinking plenty of fluids, eating healthily, gurgling with salt water and sucking throat lozenges or eating ice lollies to ease a sore throat.

If the tonsillitis is caused by a bacterial infection and your symptoms are severe and not getting better, your GP may prescribe a short course of antibiotics. It will usually be  amoxicillin or penicillin that is prescribed, unless you are allergic to penicillins, in which case another antibiotic will be prescribed.  It is essential that any course of antibiotics is completed, even if you feel better after a couple of days.  If you do not complete the course there is a chance the infection will return and be resistant to the antibiotic you were prescribed before.

As with a viral infection, the patient should stay off work or school to rest and prevent the spread of the infection. You can also help ease symptoms by drinking plenty of fluids, eating healthy and treating a sore throat by gurgling with salt water, sucking throat lozenges or eating ice lollies.

If a bout of tonsillitis lasts a long time or keeps coming back, this is known as chronic tonsillitis. If you are an adult suffering from repeated infections over several years or your life is being severely disrupted by consecutive infections, you are likely to be considered for surgery to remove the tonsils (called a tonsillectomy).  For children, you are more likely to be advised to wait and see, as the tonsils shrink as you get older and by adulthood most tonsils have disappeared altogether as they are no longer needed.

Your doctor is likely to suggest a tonsillectomy if you have had tonsillitis:

  • Frequently and/or it interferes with normal functions, such as breathing
  • More than 7 times in the last year
  • 5 or more times in each of the preceding 2 years
  • 3 or more times in the preceding 3 years

Bacterial tonsillitis can sometimes lead to an abscess around your tonsils (called a peritonsillar abscess or quinsy). With an abscess you may experience: –

  • severe pain in your throat which maybe worse on one side
  • raised temperature
  • difficulty opening your mouth
  • difficulty swallowing

A peritonsillar abscess is usually treated with antibiotics and a surgical procedure to drain the pus.  You may also be advised to have your tonsils removed.

How can I prevent tonsillitis?

You can’t catch tonsillitis directly from someone with the infection, but you can catch whatever caused it.  To prevent the spread of viruses and exposure to germs, practice good hygiene when you or anyone you’re in contact with, has an infection.

  • Wash hand thoroughly with soap and water
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Put dirty tissues in the bin
  • Don’t share cups, crockery or cutlery