Tonsillitis is more common in children and teenagers, but there is nothing that prevents adults from getting it.
Both viral and bacterial infections can cause tonsillitis, which refers to inflammation of the tonsils.
Keep reading to learn more about tonsillitis in adults, including the risk factors and treatments.
The symptoms of tonsillitis in adults include:
- sore throat
- red, swollen tonsils
- difficulty swallowing
- sore, swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- nasal congestion
- loss of appetite
- hoarse voice
Viruses are the most common cause of tonsillitis in adults and children, being responsible for up to 70% of cases, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. The viruses at work include those that cause the common cold and laryngitis, as well as the Epstein-Barr virus, which is responsible for mononucleosis.
When adults come down with tonsillitis due to a bacterial infection, group A Streptococcus is the usual culprit. People sometimes refer to this illness as strep throat. Its onset is usually more sudden than that of viral infections, and people do not typically have a cough, which is frequently present with a viral infection.
Other potential indications of bacterial tonsillitis are:
- tender lymph nodes in the neck
- white, pus-filled spots on the tonsils
- bad breath
Children and teenagers are more likely than adults to get tonsillitis, including that due to group A Streptococcus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 1 in 10 adults with a sore throat actually have strep throat.
As tonsillitis is more common in children and also very contagious, the factors that place adults at higher risk of developing it include:
- frequent contact with young children — for example, as a parent or teacher
- working in crowded conditions, such as a day care center
- living in crowded conditions, such as military barracks
Tonsillitis usually gets better with several days of self-care and rest at home.
If it is not improving, it is getting worse, or the symptoms are so severe that the individual is not able to eat or drink as necessary, it is a good idea to see a doctor.
As most cases of tonsillitis in adults, as with children, are due to viruses, rest and self-care at home are usually the only treatments necessary. Commonly recommended self-care practices include:
- resting as much as possible
- drinking a lot of fluids
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain and discomfort
- using a humidifier to keep household air moist
- eating soft foods and frozen foods, such as popsicles
- using OTC lozenges to help keep the throat moist
However, if testing reveals that tonsillitis is due to a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotic therapy. In situations where it is not clear whether bacteria are the cause, some doctors recommend a strategy of delayed antibiotics, with individuals taking medication if they meet certain criteria.
Penicillin and amoxicillin are the antibiotics that doctors prescribe most often to adults with bacterial tonsillitis. People who are allergic to penicillin antibiotics will receive a suitable substitute.
Using antibiotics, when appropriate, can shorten the duration of symptoms and reduce the risks of complications, such as rheumatic fever.
Various home remedies are available to help adults take care of themselves during a bout of tonsillitis. People can try:
- gargling with salt water (half a teaspoon of salt per eight ounces of warm water) while taking care not to swallow the water
- wrapping the neck with a cloth, hot compress, or heating pad
- drinking herbal tea with lemon and honey
- drinking hot water with lemon, honey, and a dash of cayenne pepper
Most cases of tonsillitis in adults resolve within a week, but for some people, the inflammation and discomfort last much longer.
Some people also experience frequently recurring bouts of tonsillitis. A doctor may recommend that a person undergo the removal of their tonsils, called a tonsillectomy, if they have:
- seven or more episodes of tonsillitis in 1 year
- five or more episodes in each of the previous 2 years
- three or more episodes in each of the past 3 years.
The tonsils’ main function is to help prevent infection, but in adults, this role is diminished. Therefore, if someone seems to be more prone to infections instead, removal may be the best option.
Although a tonsillectomy will put an end to an adult’s problems with recurring tonsillitis, researchers have found that there is uncertainty among healthcare providers regarding the most cost effective stage of the disease to pursue the procedure for adults.
Pain is common after a tonsillectomy. Just as children should stay home from school for 2 weeks or so after surgery, adults need to give themselves and their body a chance to rest and recover.
Although swallowing might be difficult after the procedure, experts recommend as rapid a return to solid foods as possible.
Tonsillitis may be a common condition in children, but it can also affect adults.
Viral infections cause most cases of tonsillitis in adults and children, and at-home treatment with rest, fluids, and OTC pain relievers is usually sufficient.
However, bacteria do cause some cases of adult tonsillitis, many of which are due to strep throat. Adults with this type of tonsillitis can benefit from seeing a doctor and taking antibiotics.