Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils. If you have tonsillitis, your tonsils will be swollen and sore. It’s most common in children but anyone can have it.
What causes tonsillitis
The tonsils are glands at both sides of the back of your throat that help protect you against infection. Tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus, or occasionally by bacteria, and often follows a cold.
You can’t be immunised against tonsillitis so you can’t prevent it, although good hygiene can help. You can have it more than once.
Symptoms of tonsillitis
People with tonsillitis often feel unwell and they may have:
- a sore throat
- red, swollen and painful tonsils, sometimes with white patches or pus
- difficulty or pain on swallowing
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- bad breath
- stiff neck
- pain in the ears
There may be other cold symptoms, such as a runny nose, cough or sore eyes. Younger children may have nausea, vomiting or stomach pain. They may be unusually fussy and drool a lot because they can’t swallow.
Not every sore throat is due to tonsillitis.
Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
Treatment of tonsillitis
See your doctor if your child has a sore throat and a fever. You should also contact your doctor if a sore throat doesn't improve in a few days or causes:
- difficulty breathing or swallowing
- a persistent fever
- severe pain, particularly if it’s mainly on one side of your throat.
Some people with tonsillitis will need antibiotics.
Paracetamol can reduce discomfort, and any fever or headache.
People with tonsillitis should rest, drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and avoid cigarette smoke. You can gargle with saltwater and use throat lozenges to reduce discomfort.
Ice cream, jelly and other soft, cool foods can soothe a sore throat. Ice blocks and ice chips, or gargling salty water, may help.
Some people who have recurring bouts of tonsillitis will be offered surgery to remove their tonsils. The operation is known as a tonsillectomy.
People who have a tonsillectomy need a general anaesthetic, and often stay in hospital overnight. There is a risk of heavy bleeding after the operation. It doesn't prevent sore throats coming back. Some people have a lot of pain afterwards, and it can take up to 2 weeks to recover.
You should talk to your doctor or ear, nose and throat specialist about whether a tonsillectomy is likely to help you.
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Last reviewed: February 2019