Tonsillitis is an infection and swelling of the tonsils, which are oval-shaped masses of lymph gland tissue located on both sides of the back of the throat.
The tonsils normally help to prevent infections. They act like filters to trap bacteria and viruses entering the body through the mouth and sinuses. The tonsils also stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies that help fight infections. Anyone of any age can have tonsillitis; however, it is most common in children between the ages of five and 15 years.
Tonsillitis is transmitted from one person to another in the same way that many common diseases are, such as by coughing and sneezing. It can also spread when a child touches his or her nose and then other children's toys or by children eating or drinking with the same utensils. Children with bacterial tonsillitis are usually no longer contagious 24 hours after beginning a course of antibiotics .
Tonsillitis is very common among children. Nearly all children will have some form of tonsillitis at least once.
Causes and symptoms
Tonsillitis is caused by viruses or bacteria that make the tonsils swell and become inflamed. Most cases of tonsillitis are caused by viruses, which cannot be treated with antibiotics. A mild or severe sore throat is one of the first symptoms of tonsillitis. Symptoms can also include fever , chills, tiredness, muscle aches, earache, pain or discomfort when swallowing, and swollen glands in the neck. Very young children may be fussy and stop eating. When a doctor or nurse looks into the mouth with a flashlight, the tonsils may appear swollen and red. Sometimes, the tonsils will have white or yellow spots or flecks. Symptoms usually last four to six days.
When to call the doctor
If the child is displaying the symptoms of tonsillitis and has had a sore throat for more than 48 hours, especially when accompanied by a fever, a doctor should be called. The doctor can determine if the child has tonsillitis, if it is bacterial or viral, and treat the problem accordingly. If the child cannot breathe or cannot swallow emergency medical attention should be sought.
The diagnosis of tonsillitis is made from the visible symptoms and a physical examination of the patient. The doctor examines the eyes, ears, nose, and throat, looking at the tonsils for signs of swelling, redness, or discharge. A careful examination of the throat is necessary to rule out diphtheria and other conditions that may cause a sore throat. Since most sore throats in children are caused by viruses rather than bacteria, the doctor may take a throat culture in order to test for the presence of streptococcal bacteria. A throat culture is performed by wiping a cotton swab across the tonsils and back of the throat and sending the swab to a laboratory for culturing. Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacterium that causes "strep" throat, is the most common bacterial agent responsible for tonsillitis. Depending on what type of test is used for strep, the doctor may be able to determine within a few minutes if S. pyogenes is present. The quick tests for strep are not as reliable as a laboratory culture, which can take 24 to 48 hours. If the results of a quick test are positive, however, the doctor can prescribe antibiotics right away. If the quick test results are negative, the doctor can do a throat culture to verify the results and wait for the laboratory report before prescribing antibiotics. A blood test may also be done to rule out a more serious infection or condition and to check the white blood cell count to see if the body is responding to the infection. In some cases, the doctor may order blood tests for mononucleosis, since about one third of patients with mononucleosis develop streptococcal infections of the tonsils.
Treatment of tonsillitis usually involves keeping the patient comfortable while the illness runs its course. This supportive care includes bed rest, drinking extra fluids, gargling with warm salt water, and taking pain relievers. Children under the age of 12 should not be given aspirin as a pain reliever because of the threat of Reye's syndrome . Frozen juice bars and cold fruit drinks can bring some temporary relief of sore throat pain. Drinking warm tea or broth can also be soothing. If the throat culture shows that S. pyogenes is present, penicillin or other antibiotics will be prescribed. An injection of benzathine or procaine penicillin may be most effective in treating the infection, but it is also painful. If an oral antibiotic is prescribed, it must be taken for the full course of treatment, usually 10 to 14 days, even if the symptoms are no longer present. If the child has several episodes of severe tonsillitis, the doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, which is the surgical removal of the tonsils.
Strengthening the immune system is important whether tonsillitis is caused by bacteria or viruses. Naturopaths often recommend dietary supplements of vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and beta-carotenes, found naturally in fruits and vegetables, to ease inflammation and fight infection. A variety of herbal remedies also may be helpful in treating tonsillitis. Calendula ( Calendula officinalis ) and cleavers ( Galium aparine ) target the lymphatic system, while echinacea ( Echinacea spp. ) and astragalus ( Astragalus membranaceus )stimulate the immune system. Goldenseal ( Hydrastis canadensis ), myrrh ( Commiphora molmol ), and bitter orange act as antibacterials. Lomatium dissectum and ligusticum porteri have an antiviral action. Some of the homeopathic medicines that may be used to treat symptoms of tonsillitis include:
- hepar sulphuris
- rhus toxicodendron
As with any condition, the treatment and dosage should be appropriate for the particular symptoms and age of the patient.
Tonsillitis usually resolves within a few days with rest and supportive care. Treating the symptoms of sore throat and fever will make the child more comfortable. If fever persists for more than 48 hours, however, or is higher than 102°F (38.9°C) the child should be seen by a doctor. If antibiotics are prescribed to treat an infection, they should be taken as directed for the complete course of treatment, even if the child starts to feel better in a few days. Prolonged symptoms may indicate that the child has other upper respiratory infections, most commonly in the ears or sinuses. An abscess behind the tonsil (a peritonsillar abscess) may also occur. In rare cases, a persistent sore throat may point to more serious conditions, such as rheumatic fever or pneumonia .
The bacteria and viruses that cause tonsillitis are easily spread from person to person. It is not unusual for an entire family or several students in the same classroom to come down with similar symptoms, especially if S. pyogenes is the cause. The risk of transmission can be lowered by avoiding exposure to anyone who already has tonsillitis or a sore throat. Drinking glasses and eating utensils should not be shared and should be washed in hot, soapy water before reuse. Old toothbrushes should be replaced to prevent reinfection. People who are caring for someone with tonsillitis should wash their hands frequently to prevent spreading the infection to others.
Tonsillitis usually has no long term effects if it is detected and treated promptly. If it is not treated it can lead to other medical conditions such as rheumatic fever, kidney inflammation, or abscesses that could block a child's breathing passage.
Streptococcus pyogenes —A common bacterium that causes strep throat and can also cause tonsillitis.
Tonsillectomy —A surgical procedure to remove the tonsils. A tonsillectomy is performed if the patient has recurrent sore throats or throat infections, or if the tonsils have become so swollen that the patient has trouble breathing or swallowing.
Tonsils —Common name for the palatine tonsils, which are lymph masses in the back of the mouth, on either side of the tongue. Tonsils act like filters to trap bacteria and viruses.
Silverstien, Alvin, Virginia Silverstein, and Laura S. Nunn. Sore Throats and Tonsillitis. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 2000.
"Tonsillitis." In Professional Guide to Diseases , 7th ed. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corporation, 2001.
"Sore Throat." Journal of the American Medical Association 291, no. 13 (April 7, 2004): 1664.
Tish Davidson, A.M.