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Tonsillitis: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

What is tonsillitis?

Tonsils are the two lymph nodes located on each side of the back of your throat. They function as a defense mechanism and help prevent your body from getting an infection. When tonsils become infected, the condition is called tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis can occur at any age and is a common childhood illness. It’s most often diagnosed in children from preschool age through their mid-teens. Symptoms include a sore throat, swollen tonsils, and fever.

This condition is contagious and can be caused by a variety of common viruses and bacteria, such as Streptococcal bacteria, which causes strep throat. Tonsillitis caused by strep throat can lead to serious complications if left untreated.

Tonsillitis is easy to diagnose. Symptoms usually go away within 7 to 10 days. Here’s what you need to know — from types to treatments.

There are 3 types of tonsillitis: acute, chronic, and recurrent.

Possible symptoms of tonsillitis include:

In very young children, you may also notice increased irritability, poor appetite, or excessive drooling.

Tonsillitis is incredibly common in children. In fact, almost every child will probably get tonsillitis at least once.

If symptoms last around 10 days or less, it’s considered acute tonsillitis. If symptoms last longer, or if tonsillitis comes back multiple times during the year, it may be chronic or recurrent tonsillitis.

Acute tonsillitis will likely improve with home treatments, but in some cases may require other treatments, like antibiotics.

Chronic tonsillitis symptoms continue longer than acute. You may experience long-lasting:

  • sore throat
  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • tender lymph nodes in the neck

Chronic tonsillitis may also cause tonsil stones, where materials like dead cells, saliva, and food build up in the crevices of your tonsils. Eventually, the debris can harden into small stones. These may come loose on their own, or they may need to be removed by a doctor.

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Your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy to surgically remove your tonsils if you have chronic tonsillitis.

As with chronic tonsillitis, a standard treatment for recurrent tonsillitis is a tonsillectomy. Recurrent tonsillitis is often defined as:

  • a sore throat or tonsillitis at least 5 to 7 times in 1 year
  • occurrences at least 5 times in each of the previous 2 years
  • occurrences a least 3 times in each of the previous 3 years

Research from 2018 suggests that chronic and recurrent tonsillitis may be caused by biofilms in the folds of the tonsils. Biofilms are communities of microorganisms with increased antibiotic resistance that can cause repeated infections.

Genetics may also be a reason for recurrent tonsillitis.

A 2019 study examined the tonsils of children who had recurrent tonsillitis. The study found that genetics may cause a poor immune response to group A streptococcus bacteria, which causes strep throat and tonsillitis.

Learn more about the genetics behind recurrent tonsillitis.

You should see a doctor if you experience the following symptoms:

  • fever that’s higher than 103°F (39.5°C)
  • muscle weakness
  • neck stiffness
  • a sore throat that doesn’t go away after 2 days

In rare cases, tonsillitis can cause the throat to swell so much that it causes trouble breathing. If this happens, seek immediate medical attention.

While some tonsillitis episodes go away on their own, some may require other treatments.

If you have tonsillitis, you may be contagious 24 to 48 hours before you develop any symptoms. You may still be able to spread the illness until you’re no longer sick.

If you take antibiotics for bacterial tonsillitis, you should stop being contagious after 24 hours.

You can develop tonsillitis if someone with the infection coughs or sneezes near you and you breathe in the droplets. If you touch a contaminated object, like a doorknob, and then touch your nose or mouth, you may also develop tonsillitis.

Being in contact with many people increases the risk of being exposed to tonsillitis. This is why school-age children often get the illness. If you have symptoms, it’s best to stay home to avoid spreading tonsillitis.

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It typically takes 2 to 4 days to develop symptoms after being exposed to someone with tonsillitis. Find out how to reduce your risk of getting or spreading tonsillitis.

Tonsils are your first line of defense against illness. They produce white blood cells that help your body fight infection.

The tonsils combat bacteria and viruses that enter your body through your mouth and nose. However, tonsils are also vulnerable to infection from these invaders.

Tonsillitis can be caused by a virus, such as the common cold, or by a bacterial infection, such as strep throat.

Viral tonsillitis

Viruses are the most common cause of tonsillitis. The viruses that cause the common cold are often the source of tonsillitis, but other viruses can also cause it. These include:

Since the Epstein-Barr virus can cause both mononucleosis and tonsillitis, sometimes people with mono will develop tonsillitis as a secondary infection.

If you have viral tonsillitis, your symptoms may include coughing or a stuffy nose. Antibiotics won’t work on viruses, but you can treat standard symptoms by staying hydrated, taking over-the-counter pain medications, and resting to help your body heal.

Bacterial tonsillitis

Around 15 to 30 percent of tonsillitis cases result from bacteria. Most often it’s strep bacteria, which causes strep throat, but other bacteria can also cause tonsillitis.

Bacterial tonsillitis is more common in children…

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