Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils, two oval-shaped pads of tissue at the back of the throat — one tonsil on each side.
Tonsillitis most commonly affects children between preschool ages and the mid-teenage years. Common signs and symptoms of tonsillitis include:
- Red, swollen tonsils
- White or yellow coating or patches on the tonsils
- Sore throat
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Enlarged, tender glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
- A scratchy, muffled or throaty voice
- Bad breath
- Stomachache, particularly in younger children
- Stiff neck
In young children who are unable to describe how they feel, signs of tonsillitis may include:
- Drooling due to difficult or painful swallowing
- Refusal to eat
- Unusual fussiness
When to see a doctor
It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis if your child has symptoms that may indicate tonsillitis.
Call your doctor if your child is experiencing:
- A sore throat that doesn’t go away within 24 to 48 hours
- Painful or difficult swallowing
- Extreme weakness, fatigue or fussiness
Get immediate care if your child has any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Extreme difficulty swallowing
Tonsillitis is most often caused by common viruses, but bacterial infections can also be the cause.
The most common bacterium causing tonsillitis is Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus), the bacterium that causes strep throat. Other strains of strep and other bacteria also may cause tonsillitis.
Inflammation or swelling of the tonsils from frequent or ongoing (chronic) tonsillitis can cause complications such as:
- Difficulty breathing
- Disrupted breathing during sleep (obstructive sleep apnea)
- Infection that spreads deep into surrounding tissue (tonsillar cellulitis)
- Infection that results in a collection of pus behind a tonsil (peritonsillar abscess)
Tests and diagnosis
Your child’s doctor will start with a physical exam that will include:
- Using a lighted instrument to look at your child’s throat and likely his or her ears and nose, which may also be sites of infection
- Checking for a rash known as scarlatina, which is associated with some cases of strep throat
- Gently feeling (palpating) your child’s neck to check for swollen glands (lymph nodes)
- Listening to his or her breathing with a stethoscope
- Checking for enlargement of the spleen (for consideration of mononucleosis, which also inflames the tonsil
Lab diagnosis include
- Throat swab
- Complete blood count
Treatments and drugs
At-home care strategies to use during the recovery time include the following:
- Encourage rest. Encourage your child to get plenty of sleep.
- Provide adequate fluids.
- Provide comforting foods and beverage. Warm liquids — broth, caffeine-free tea or warm water with honey — and cold treats like ice pops can soothe a sore throat.
- Prepare a saltwater gargle.
- Offer lozenges. Children older than age 4 can suck on lozenges to relieve a sore throat.
- Avoid irritants.
- Treat pain and fever.
If tonsillitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics. Penicillin taken by mouth for 10 days is the most common antibiotic treatment prescribed for tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus. If your child is allergic to penicillin, your doctor will prescribe an alternative antibiotic.
Your child must take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed even if the symptoms go away completely. Failure to take all of the medication as directed may result in the infection worsening or spreading to other parts of the body. Not completing the full course of antibiotics can, in particular, increase your child’s risk of rheumatic fever and serious kidney inflammation.
Surgery to remove tonsils (tonsillectomy) may be used to treat frequently recurring tonsillitis, chronic tonsillitis or bacterial tonsillitis that doesn’t respond to antibiotic treatment. Frequent tonsillitis is generally defined as:
- More than seven episodes in one year
- More than four to five episodes a year in each of the preceding two years
- More than three episodes a year in each of the preceding three years
A tonsillectomy may also be performed if tonsillitis results in difficult-to-manage complications, such as:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Breathing difficulty
- Swallowing difficulty, especially meats and other chunky foods
- An abscess that doesn’t improve with antibiotic treatment
The germs that cause viral and bacterial tonsillitis are contagious. Therefore, the best prevention is to practice good hygiene. Teach your child to:
- Wash his or her hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after using the toilet and before eating
- Avoid sharing food, drinking glasses, water bottles or utensils
- Replace his or her toothbrush after being diagnosed with tonsillitis
To help your child prevent the spread of a bacterial or viral infection to others:
- Keep your child at home when he or she is ill
- Ask your doctor when it’s all right for your child to return to school
- Teach your child to cough or sneeze into a tissue or, when necessary, into his or her elbow
- Teach your child to wash his or her hands after sneezing or coughing