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The tonsils refer to the two lymph nodes at the back of your throat. Due to various reasons, the tonsils may swell up, and the condition is known as tonsillitis or pharyngitis.
Generally, tonsillitis resolves on its own within a few days. However, some people may experience recurrent or chronic tonsillitis. The treatment of tonsillitis depends on its cause. Viral infections are generally treated through self-care, while bacterial infections may require antibiotic treatment.
Causes of Tonsillitis
Tonsillitis can be caused by viral infections (much more common) and bacterial infections (about ⅓ or less of the cases).
Of the bacterial causes, the most common is streptococcal bacteria, particularly called Streptococcus pyogenes. The same bacteria are also responsible for strep throat.
Another cause of tonsillitis seen in older children, teens, and young adults is mononucleosis (“mono” or the kissing disease). It is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Mononucleosis can vary from a mild illness to a more severe form where the tonsils swell up and have white patches (exudate).
Swollen lymph nodes, fever, and fatigue also characterize this condition. This disease is spread by contact, especially the exchange of salivary fluids.
Medical Treatment for Tonsillitis
Viral causes of tonsillitis do not require treatment with antibiotics and should be cared for by providing supportive treatment including the following:
- Taking lots of fluids
- Consuming soft foods
- Pain control measures
- Gargles for sore throat
- Taking medicines such as Motrin or Tylenol for pain management and fever if needed
Strep tonsillitis caused by strep bacteria is most often treated with antibiotics such as penicillin. Even if antibiotics are not given, strep tonsillitis will usually resolve itself in 7–10 days.
However, as the strep bacteria responsible for tonsillitis can also cause rheumatic heart disease and other rare complications, most cases of strep tonsillitis are treated with antibiotics.
In individuals suffering from frequent strep tonsillitis or other bacterial and exudative tonsillitis (5–6 infections a year), surgery to remove the tonsils can be very beneficial and can significantly reduce the incidence of strep throat.
Self-Care Tips to Prevent and Treat Tonsillitis
The following measures can help prevent infection and boost recovery from tonsillitis:
- Observe proper hygiene, including washing hands frequently and not sharing toiletries and utensils, especially with anyone who is sick, to prevent the spread of infection.
- It is advisable to change toothbrushes after being treated for strep tonsillitis to prevent a recurrence.
- When you are feeling sick and have a sore throat, avoid going to public places to prevent the spread of infection, usually through the air.
- Rest, sleep, and hydration are helpful in recovering quickly as they boost your immunity.
- Consume foods that boost your immunity and help your body heal better. These foods include chicken soup, bone broth, turmeric, (1) and ginger.
- Avoid alcohol and smoking when sick.
- It is essential to complete the full course of antibiotics if they are prescribed. Stopping the medication midway leads to the development of antibiotic resistance and makes it harder to treat the infection.
- Control allergies as much as possible by allergen avoidance, environmental control, taking antihistamines, doing sinus rinses (neti pot), and gargling to help prevent and treat tonsillitis in allergic settings.
- Avoid irritants such as cigarette smoke and pollution, which can also lead to throat and tonsil inflammation.
- Stay indoors or wear a mask in highly polluted environments to reduce exposure to pollutants.
- Gargle with salt water not only to help soothe your irritated throat but also to fight any underlying infection or germs. Steam inhalation is not as helpful in treating tonsillitis as it is for sinusitis or upper respiratory infection.
- Tonsil stones can sometimes lead to tonsillitis. These can be avoided in the early phases by gargling after meals and using a water pick or a tip to tease out the accumulated debris.
Dietary Changes for Tonsillitis
It is recommended to avoid foods that irritate the throat. Although common sense can guide you in making the appropriate food choices, it is best to stay off hard, spicy, or acidic foods until your throat recovers.
Additionally, limit your intake of dairy as it can make your spit thicker, making swallowing difficult or uncomfortable. Alcohol and smoking can worsen the discomfort associated with swollen tonsils and should be avoided. (2)
Tonsillitis vs. Sore Throat
Sore throat means the throat hurts. The throat is made up of many structures, including the tonsils, roof of the mouth called the palate, back of the throat called the pharynx, back of the tongue, and voice box. A disease or irritation in any of these throat structures can lead to a sore throat.
Tonsillitis refers more specifically to the inflammation or infection of the tonsils and is a common cause of sore throat, especially in children.
Can Tonsillitis Be a Sign of Cancer?
Tonsillitis is an infection associated with fever, pain in both tonsils (sometimes one-sided only), swollen tender glands of the neck, and malaise.
Persistent one-sided pain with an abnormal or large-looking tonsil with or without tender swollen glands of the neck should get checked for cancer by a doctor. Most classical cases of tonsillitis do not mimic cancer.
Complications Associated With Tonsillitis
Sometimes, a tonsil infection can spread beyond the tonsil and cause a peritonsillar abscess. This leads to severe one-sided pain and makes opening the jaw or swallowing difficult.
The abscess can also spread to the deeper spaces of the neck and therefore needs immediate medical attention to prevent worsening of the condition. If treatment to drain the abscess is not available or delayed, it can sometimes burst and release pus in the mouth.
Another less serious condition is the formation of tonsil stones, which are essentially trapped food in the tunnels of the tonsil. Tonsil stones mostly occur in older kids and adults and can sometimes develop pus pockets that might burst.
Tonsillitis, or inflammation in the tonsils, is a common problem, especially among children. It is vital to visit a doctor for the proper diagnosis of the cause and suitable treatment.
Since tonsillitis is generally caused by viral and bacterial infections, it is necessary to maintain hygiene to prevent its spread. Certain self-care measures, along with medications, may help relieve tonsillitis and its symptoms.