Tonsillitis: The Complete Guide

Tonsillitis is a term for inflammation in the tonsils. Your tonsils are the guardians of your body and critical parts of your immune system. Positioned at the top of your throat, tonsils act as gatekeepers by filtering out and eliminating invading pathogens.  

Your tonsils work hard to keep you from getting sick. On occasion, however, your tonsils themselves can get sick by developing tonsillitis.

A better understanding of what tonsillitis is and what causes it will help you protect yourself and your family’s health.

What Is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis happens when one or more of your tonsil tissues becomes sore and inflamed. Foreign invaders such as bacteria and virus can trigger this inflammation. Tonsils become swollen, red, and quite painful. In some cases, tonsils can even collect pale patches of pus, a hallmark sign of infection.

Medical Red Swollen Tonsils

It often resolves on its own within a week or two. It’s an uncomfortable but common condition. In fact, millions of people each year come down with a case of tonsillitis.

Some of the most common symptoms include: 

  • Sore throat 
  • Difficulty swallowing 
  • Headache 
  • Fever and chills 
  • Pain around the ears and/or neck 
  • Cough 
  • Swollen lymph glands 
  • Tiredness 

Causes of Tonsillitis

Considering all the work your tonsils do, it’s not surprising that they occasionally get overloaded with all the germs they have to fight. Your tonsils can become inundated with dead cells, food debris, and mucus in addition to countless pathogens. They may be even more prone to infection at times when your entire immune system is weakened to the point that your tonsils can’t properly do their job. 

Tonsillitis Medical Bacterial or Viral

It can be either bacterial or viral in origin. Tonsils can become infected and inflamed by the same virus that gives you a cold or by the bacteria that cause strep throat

Little kids are highly prone to this condition. Since they have immature immune systems that haven’t yet figured out how to identify and fight off new pathogens. Additionally, children tend to play in close proximity with one another and readily share germs. 

Tonsillitis vs. Strep Throat – Is There a Difference?

Tonsillitis might sound like just another word for strep throat. But it’s not actually the same condition

Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by a specific kind of bacteria: group A Streptococcus. The bacteria invade tissues throughout the throat including the tonsils. One symptom of strep throat is tonsillitis. Strep doesn’t target the tonsils, but they can be involved. 

Strep throat can cause tonsillitis, but this doesn’t mean that all cases can be diagnosed as strep. Tonsillitis simply refers to tonsils that are swollen for virtually any reason, whether bacterial or viral.  

Strep throat usually requires medical attention and antibiotics. It has nothing to do with strep, on the other hand, it will usually resolve on its own much faster than strep can. It may also be accompanied by other symptoms that you don’t see with strep throat such as a cough, runny nose, and pink eye.

Doctor examination

Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician at Children’s Medical Group told CNN in 2010 that only about one in ten sore throat cases is caused by strep bacteria. This means that strep throat isn’t the most likely cause. It is more likely to be caused by the same virus that causes a cold.

The next time your tonsils start to swell and ache, remember this: you probably have tonsillitis, but there’s no guarantee that it’s strep. You’ll have to see your doctor to get a diagnosis if you’re worried you have a strep infection.

Is Tonsillitis Dangerous?

It is not a dangerous condition. If your tonsils are inflamed, let the condition run its course, you should start to feel better within a few days. Tonsillitis doesn’t last too long. Seven to ten days is the average. Getting plenty of rest while you’re sick is the key to a speedy recovery.

If you have a fever higher than 103°F (39.5°C), neck aches, or a sore throat that won’t go away, you should see a doctor as it could be something more serious than an average case of tonsillitis.

If you suspect that you have strep, you should definitely get your tonsils and throat checked right away. Your doctor will take a swab to test for the bacteria and prescribe an antibiotic, if necessary. 

How to Treat Tonsillitis

Bedrest temperature

It will resolve on its own but palliative care can help you start to feel better as soon as possible. Try these tips for treating tonsillitis

  • Take an over-the-counter painkiller to ease the pain 
  • Gargle with warm salty water to cleanse and soothe your tonsils and bring down the swelling 
  • Let ice chips melt in your mouth to soothe the burning 
  • Get lots of sleep 
  • Stay hydrated
  • Nourish your body with soft foods that are easy to swallow such as pasta, creamed potatoes, soup, and ice cream 

See your doctor if nothing you try seems to work or if the symptoms are not resolving. Your doctor or chemist can recommend a stronger medication to help you get relief from the pain. 

Does having tonsillitis mean that you’ll have to get your tonsils removed?


No, the best-considered solution is no longer tonsil surgeryThe best way to treat tonsillitis is to keep your throat comfortable and let your body rest. Let the infection run its course and contact your doctor if you suspect there’s something more going on.

Who Can Get Tonsillitis?

Anyone with tonsils can get tonsillitis. Children may be most prone to this condition since their immune systems are still developing. But teens and adults can also come down with it. Adults with compromised immune systems or those who spend a lot of time around little kids may also be susceptible to frequent tonsil infections. 

Tonsillitis is a reaction to pathogens. Inflamed tonsils are just a reaction to an invading foreign body and aren’t contagious in and of themselves. But the bacteria and virus that trigger tonsillitis are contagious.  

It’s true that you may not find out exactly which pathogen caused your particular case of tonsillitis or how contagious it is. But it’s good to be considerate of others. If you have tonsillitis, take care to avoid passing on the germs by washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. 

How to Prevent Tonsillitis

Your tonsils work hard all day every day to protect your body from dangerous infections. So they can get clogged up with germs and debris which increase your chances of developing it.

No more tonsillitis

To avoid getting sick with a tonsil infection, practice good hygiene by washing your hands often and stay hydrated with plain water. Cleaning your mouth and tonsils thoroughly is also an essential way to maintain tonsil health.

Additionally, brush and floss your teeth daily to remove the germs lodged around them. Clean your tongue with a tongue scraper to eliminate the germy film that can travel to your tonsils. Lastly, cleanse your tonsils on a regular basis by gargling with water and flushing them out with a special tonsil cleaning device.