Tonsillitis affects millions of individuals each year. Although uncomfortable and unpleasant, tonsillitis is rarely a major health concern.
The following article investigates its causes, diagnosis and symptoms. Treatment, whether at home or by a medical professional, will also be covered.
Additional information about the role of the tonsils in a healthy individual is also included.
- What is tonsillitis?
- Symptoms of tonsillitis
- What are the tonsils?
- Causes of tonsillitis
- Diagnosis of tonsillitis
- Treatment of tonsillitis
Fast facts on tonsillitis
Here are some key points about tonsillitis. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Tonsillitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
- The vast majority of tonsillitis cases will clear of their own accord within 10 days.
- Strep throat is a type of tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria.
- Surgery is a last resort in the treatment of tonsillitis.
- Tonsillitis can be diagnosed by examination of the throat and a bacterial swab.
- There is a multitude of infectious agents that can cause the illness.
- Tonsils are the body's first line of defense against external pathogens.
- Sometimes tonsilloliths are left in a patient's throat after the infection has cleared.
What is tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils - two pads of tissue at the back of the throat. The infection is typically viral, but can sometimes be bacterial.
If the infection is by a bacterium belonging to the group A streptococcus, it is referred to as strep throat.1
The vast majority of people, whether given medication or not, will fully recover from the infection within a matter of days.
In roughly 40% of individuals, the symptoms will resolve within 3 days, and for 85%, they will have recovered within 1 week.
Symptoms of tonsillitis
Tonsillitis can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection, and typically resolves within a couple of days.
The most common symptoms of tonsillitis include the following:
- Sore throat and pain when swallowing
- Red and swollen tonsils with pus-filled spots
- High temperature
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain in the ears and/or neck
- Difficulty sleeping
- Swollen lymph glands.
Less common symptoms can include:
- Stomachache and vomiting
- Furry tongue
- Changes in the sound of the voice
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- Difficulty opening the mouth.
In around 10% of individuals, tonsilloliths - also known as tonsil stones or tonsillar calculi - may be present. A tonsillolith is a calcified build-up of material in the crevices of the tonsils.
Tonsilloliths are predominantly calcium-based but may also contain phosphorus, magnesium, ammonia and carbonate. They are generally small, but in rare cases tonsilloliths have been found reaching sizes of 30 centimeters3 and above.2
They can be a nuisance and sometimes difficult to remove, but they are not generally harmful. Tonsilloliths can cause halitosis, however.
What are the tonsils?
Tonsils are collections of lymphoid tissue (part of the immune system) situated at the back of the throat.
There are in fact four sets of tonsils in the human head, but, usually when they are referred to simply as "the tonsils," it is the palatine tonsils that are being discussed.
The palatine tonsils are the only tonsils that are visible under normal circumstances.
Tonsils are at their largest size around the time of puberty and from that point on they slowly atrophy (breakdown).
The tonsils are the body's first line of defense against inhaled pathogens. Specialized M cells on their surface capture antigens from pathogens and alert B cells and T cells to mount an immune defense.
Tonsils also produce T cells, a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in the immune response. T cells were, until recently, only thought to be produced in the thymus gland (hence the "T" in "T cell").3
On the next page, we look at causes and diagnosis of tonsillitis and the available treatment options for the condition.