Tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils, which are small masses of lymphatic tissue at the back of the throat. The term ‘tonsils’ generally refers to the set of two at the back of the throat, technically known as the ‘palatine tonsils’, although there are other ‘tonsils’ behind the tongue and at the back of the nose – this is the ‘pharyngeal tonsil’ more commonly known as the adenoids.
The function of the tonsils is to help protect the throat from infection and in the process they can become infected and inflamed themselves, and this can happen very rapidly. Tonsillitis is more common in children than in adults and commonly results from a bacterial infection such as Streptococcus A (often referred to as ‘strep throat’) or from a viral infection of some sort, for example influenza, rhinovirus or adenovirus.
Symptoms of tonsillitis are the hallmark white or yellow spots on the tonsils themselves, a sore throat and swollen lymph glands. Tonsillitis can cause difficulty or pain in swallowing and occasionally nausea and stomach pain (particularly in younger children) as well as in some cases bad breath or fever.
Inflammation of the tonsils can also occasionally result in secondary infections, for example a ‘quinsy’ – an abscess in the throat – can form, which can make breathing and swallowing difficult and can be very painful. Other secondary infections can develop in the sinuses and in the ears (‘glue ear’ is a common secondary infection in children) or in the nose.
Where tonsillitis is contracted frequently, one option is to have the tonsils removed, a procedure referred to as ‘tonsillectomy’. Otherwise treatment is generally bed rest and drinking fluids. Symptoms can be relieved with painkillers and cool drinks, ice chips and even ice cream. If the infection is bacterial, antibiotics may also be prescribed.
Most people recover naturally from tonsillitis within a week, irrespective of cause, however if symptoms do not seem to be improving within four to five days, our recommendation is for you to see your doctor or arrange a consultation with Dr Chang.