What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis in children: Overview

Tonsillitis is an infection or inflammation of the tonsils that is caused by bacteria or a virus. The tonsils are in the back of the throat and are part of the immune system. Tonsillitis typically lasts from a few days up to a couple of weeks.

Tonsillitis caused by a virus usually goes away on its own. Tonsillitis caused by the bacteria that causes strep throat is treated with antibiotics. You and your child's doctor may consider surgery to remove the tonsils if your child has complications from tonsillitis or repeat infections. This surgery is called tonsillectomy.


Tonsillitis is an infection or inflammation of the tonsils. The tonsils are areas of tissue on either side of your throat, above and behind your tongue. They are part of your immune system, which helps you fight infection.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

The main symptoms of tonsillitis are a sore throat and swollen tonsils. Symptoms may also include a fever, a congested or runny nose, swollen lymph nodes, a headache, and trouble swallowing.

How is tonsillitis treated?

If your tonsillitis is caused by bacteria, you may need treatment with antibiotics. Tonsillitis caused by a virus usually goes away on its own. Treatment includes self-care at home, such as taking over-the-counter pain medicine. Surgery to remove the tonsils may be recommended if you've had problems such as repeat infections or obstructive sleep apnea.

Preventing tonsillitis

A wide variety of viruses and bacteria can cause tonsillitis, so the best prevention is to follow basic health and hygiene precautions. The following steps can be helpful.

  • Avoid close contact with others who are sick.

    If possible, stay away from people who have tonsillitis or a sore throat.

  • Wash your hands.

    Hand-washing is especially important when you are around people who appear to be sick.

    Teach children to cover their mouths or use a tissue when coughing or sneezing.

  • Cover your mouth or use a tissue when coughing or sneezing.

    This helps prevent germs from getting on their hands.

  • Do not share toothbrushes or eating utensils with other people.
  • Wash and disinfect surfaces.
  • Carry disposable wipes and hand sanitizer.

    Use them to clean your hands and to wipe off shopping carts or other shared items in public places.

  • Do not smoke.

How is tonsillitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will look at your throat to see if you have red and swollen tonsils with spots or sores. These signs can mean that you have tonsillitis. Your doctor may do a rapid strep test along with a throat culture. These will show if the tonsillitis is caused by streptococcus bacteria.

How can you care for yourself when you have tonsillitis?

  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Gargle with warm salt water several times a day to help reduce swelling and relieve pain. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of warm water.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. No one younger than 20 should take aspirin. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
  • Be careful when taking over-the-counter cold or flu medicines and Tylenol at the same time. Many of these medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Read the labels to make sure that you are not taking more than the recommended dose. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • Try lozenges or an over-the-counter throat spray to relieve throat pain.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids may help soothe an irritated throat. Drink warm or cold liquids (whichever feels better). These include tea, soup, ice, and flavored ice pops (such as Popsicles).
  • If you smoke, try to quit. If you can't quit, cut back as much as you can. Smoking can interfere with healing. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier to add moisture to the area where you sleep. Follow the directions for cleaning the machine.
  • Get plenty of rest.

How does tonsillitis spread?

Tonsillitis is spread through the air in droplets when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. You may then become infected after breathing in these droplets. Or you may get infected when the droplets get on objects or parts of your skin that come in contact with your mouth, nose, or eyes.

What causes tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus. For example, it can be caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. It can also be caused by the same bacteria that cause strep throat. Viruses and bacteria are usually passed by close contact with an infected person.

What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection or inflammation of the tonsils. The tonsils are areas of lymph tissue on both sides of the throat, above and behind the tongue. They are part of the immune system, which helps the body fight infection. Tonsillitis often goes away on its own after 4 to 10 days.

Tonsillitis in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has any trouble breathing.
  • Your child has new pain, or pain that gets worse on one side.
  • Your child has new or worse trouble swallowing.
  • Your child has a fever with a stiff neck or a severe headache.
  • Your child seems to be getting sicker.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.