Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Tonsillitis

Sore throats are a common sign

Female doctor checking a girl's tonsils
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Tonsillitis is a common medical condition, especially for children, that occurs when the pharyngeal tonsils, located in the back of the throat become inflamed. This can be caused by an infection or allergies. Tonsillitis can cause a severe sore throat and may have to be treated with medication or surgery.

Learn more about the signs, symptoms and treatment for tonsilitis with this review.

What Are the Tonsils?

The tonsils are part of the lymphatic system and therefore generate white blood cells that defend the body against disease.

The tonsils play an important part in the immune system, attacking the viruses and bacteria that are transported into the body by mouth. Because of this, the tonsils are prone to becoming inflamed, infected or both. 

When the tonsils become red, swollen, and painful this is called tonsillitis. Many different germs can cause inflammation of the tonsils, and only sometimes is an infection accompanied by white patches on the surface of the tonsil.

Children are especially vulnerable to tonsil problems because they have yet to develop immunity against common bacteria and viruses. Moreover, tonsillitis affects children disproportionately because the tonsils play the greatest role in protecting the immune system before puberty hits. 

The Causes of Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis can be caused by a virus or bacteria. The most common bacteria to cause tonsillitis is streptococcus or strep throat. Strep throat must be treated with antibiotics.

Rarely, untreated strep throat can lead to kidney or heart damage, especially in children. The most common symptom of strep throat is pain in the back of the throat that is usually unaccompanied by other cold symptoms such as a runny nose or sneezing.

Strep throat is diagnosed by swabbing the back of the throat and then identifying the bacteria or virus responsible for tonsillitis.

If you do not have strep throat, a virus is most likely causing your symptoms. Your body will need a lot of fluid, rest and time to fight off the virus. Most viral infections start to go away after about two weeks.

Normally, Tonsillitis Goes Away on Its Own

Tonsillitis is very common and there are many causes. Most of the time, it goes away on its own. But, if you have a sore throat that doesn't seem to be getting better, see your doctor.

Tonsillectomy for Chronic Tonsillitis

When the tonsils become inflamed for long periods of time, they may have to be surgically removed via a tonsillectomy. Though tonsillitis used to be treated with tonsillectomy very frequently, this is no longer the practice and these days it is only done in specific instances.

Tonsil removal is necessary in cases of extreme obstruction of the airways or swallowing due to inflamed tonsils. Other reasons for tonsillectomy include: recurrent acute throat infections, chronic tonsillitis that does not improve with antibiotics, bleeding of the tonsils, obstruction leading to bad breath or changes in voice. People with sleep disorders involving breathing and diseases of the tonsils are also common candidates for tonsillectomies.


Tonsillectomy recovery takes about two weeks.


About.com. Cold and Flu. Accessed: Feb. 3, 2009 

Medline Plus. Tonsils and Adenoids. Accessed: Feb. 3, 2009 

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