How Are Swollen Tonsils Treated?

Man with a sore throat.
Man with a sore throat. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Causes of Swollen Tonsils

Swollen tonsils can have many causes, ranging from strep throat, mononucleosis (also called mono for short or kissing disease), cold viruses and more, (a less common cause may be cryptic tonsils). So, how a doctor will treat your swollen tonsils depends on the cause. Additionally, the decision to treat swollen tonsils also will be based on the severity of the swelling and whether or not complications such as difficulty swallowing, breathing, choking, or sleep apnea are present.

If you are not sure what is causing you or your child's swollen tonsils you may wish to read some of the following articles:

Should I See A Doctor?

While it is not an emergency unless you are choking, drooling, or have difficulty breathing, you should see a doctor anytime you have symptoms, including swollen tonsils, of strep throat to avoid dangerous complications such as kidney or heart disease. Your doctor will perform a strep test, during which she will use a long Q-tip to touch your tonsils and the back of your throat. This Q-tip is then tested for the bacteria that causes strep throat. Results only take a few minutes. If the test is positive you will be given a prescription for antibiotics, and your tonsils should shrink after a few days of taking this medication. If the test is negative it will be sent to a laboratory for further evaluation.

It is possible to have a false negative test result and to test positive later on.

If you do not have strep throat, a viral infection such as mono or a strain of the common cold virus may be the cause of your swollen tonsils. In this case, there is no medication that can cure a virus, but certain medications, called steroids may be helpful in shrinking your tonsils.

However, steroids can have serious side effects and may not be effective. Therefore, your doctor will most likely not prescribe steroids unless you have complications such as swallowing difficulties, drooling or sleep apnea. Most viral infections resolve on their own in a matter of weeks. You can treat your symptoms using over-the-counter pain relievers for your sore throat and eating and drinking plenty of cold food and fluids to help with swelling, (find more tips on managing your symptoms below).

Removing Tonsils

If your swollen tonsils are a chronic condition, for example if you have recurring strep throat, and especially if they cause complications, your doctor may consider surgically removing your tonsils. This procedure is called a tonsillectomy. Tonsillectomies are very common in the United States and are usually performed as a same day surgery. For more information on tonsillectomies read:

Home Remedies For Swollen Tonsils

If your doctor chooses not to treat your swollen tonsils with medication or surgery, there are still things you can do at home.

  • Drink warm fluids - like teas or soups with broth
  • Gargle warm salt water - add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 8 ounces of water
  • Drink cold fluids or suck on popsicles
  • Suck on lozenges or hard candy
  • Use a throat spray that has benzocaine in it
  • Put an ice pack on your neck
  • Use a cool mist humidifier
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen, or acetaminophen (it's probably best to avoid aspirin, especially in children) to ease the pain of a sore throat

For more tips on treating swollen tonsils and a sore throat at home read:

Swollen tonsils are quite common and are usually caused by an infection.

You can prevent swollen tonsils by practicing good hygiene such as washing your hands often and staying at home when you are sick.

Sources:

Medline Plus. Tonsillitis. Accessed: October 11, 2011 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001043.htm

Wald, E.R. (2015). Patient information: Sore throat in children (Beyond the Basics). Accessed on June, 7 2016 from http://www.uptodate.com (Subscription Required)

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