What are Health Complications Associated With Swollen Tonsils?

Swollen tonsils
Swollen tonsils. Spider.Dog/Flickr "Tonsillitis"

While the tonsils may occasionally become swollen when we have an infection, for most of us the swelling goes down in a few weeks. For some people, however, the swelling becomes a chronic condition and if left untreated can lead to other health complications.

What Causes Swollen Tonsils?

Swollen tonsils are commonly caused by an infection - bacteria or viruses such as:

In some individuals the swelling in their tonsils becomes a chronic condition that does not go away. Others may have recurrent tonsillitis, a condition in which they have frequent infections that cause their tonsils to becomes swollen on a regular basis. The large size of the tonsils can lead to other health risks and complications.

It is important for you to know that not while swollen tonsils can cause complications, each different infection will also have other complications that are not related to the tonsils. For example, untreated strep throat can lead to kidney and heart problems. This article will cover complications specifically related to the size of the tonsils due to swelling.

Sore Throat and Painful Swallowing

Your biggest complaint while having swollen tonsils is likely to be a sore throat. This may cause you to have a lack of desire to eat or drink due to the level of pain with swallowing (also referred to as odynophagia).

While painful, it is very important that you keep drink to avoid dehydration. Eating is also important to maintain your health to avoid malnutrition. With acute swelling of the tonsils, lack of eating is not likely to result in malnutrition, however if you have chronic or recurrent swelling and pain, malnutrition can become an issue.

Whether chronic or acute pain with a sore throat, you should always avoid getting dehydrated.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition which causes a person to stop breathing for brief periods of time during their sleep. Swollen tonsils are a common cause of obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a serious condition which has been associated with many other serious health risks and symptoms including:

  • fatigue
  • high blood pressure
  • mood changes
  • depression
  • heart attack
  • congestive heart failure
  • abnormal heart rhythms
  • stroke

Sleep apnea occurs in approximately 1-4% of children and the recommended treatment is surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids. While swollen tonsils can cause sleep apnea in adults it is less common and other factors such as obesity may be the cause of sleep apnea.  

Other Complications Associated With Swollen Tonsils

  • Difficulty breathing - it is possible for the tonsils to become so swollen that they block off the back of the throat and the airway.
  • ear pain
  • ear infections
  • bad breath
  • voice changes
  • Peritonsillar abscess - occurs when infection from the tonsils spreads deep into the tissues of the head and neck. Most commonly occurs in adults and is rare in children.

Treating Swollen Tonsils

For acute tonsillitis, you can treat the symptoms. For pain associated with swallowing, you can use lozenges with menthol or throat sprays (like Chloraseptic) and over-the-counter medications like Tylenol or Ibuprofen. Treating pain will help you to be able to eat and drink. The other symptoms will improve with treatment if the cause is bacterial or time if the cause is viral.

Chronic tonsillitis or recurrent tonsillitis is different than the occasional infections which causes a temporary episode of swollen tonsils. These conditions usually persist despite the use of antibiotics or adequate time and rest for your immune system to fight off an infection. While some physicians may choose to try experimental medications such as steroids to shrink the tonsils, these medications may fail or have side effects that outweigh the benefits of their use. Even if these medications work initially, symptoms may recur.

When other treatments have failed to decrease the size of your tonsils your doctor may recommend surgical removal of your tonsils and adenoids, especially if you have complications such as sleep apnea. For more information on this treatment you may wish to read:

Sources:

American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Fact Sheet: Tonsillitis. Accessed: September 29, 2013 from http://www.entnet.org/healthinformation/tonsillitis.cfm

American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Tonsils and Adenoids. Accessed: September 29, 2013 from http://www.entnet.org/healthinformation/tonsilsadenoids.cfm

American Family Physician. Peritonsillar Abscess: Diagnosis and Treatment. Accessed: September 29, 2013 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0101/p93.html

American Sleep Apnea Association. Pediatric Sleep Apnea: A Special Case. Accessed: September 29, 2013 from http://www.sleepapnea.org/i-am-a-health-care-professional.html

Medline Plus. Tonsillitis. Accessed: September 29, 2013 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001043.htm

National Sleep Foundation. Sleep Apnea and Sleep. Accessed: September 29, 2013 from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/obstructive-sleep-apnea-and-sleep

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