How Do You Know If You Have Tonsillitis?

Reviewed on 1/21/2021

What is tonsillitis?

If you find that, your tonsils are large, red, and swollen, when swallowing if you feel like there are obstructions in your throat, you may be suffering from tonsillitis.
If you find that, your tonsils are large, red, and swollen, when swallowing if you feel like there are obstructions in your throat, you may be suffering from tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils due to infection. The tonsils are two fleshy lumps, one on the left and one on the right, toward the back of your throat. Tonsils are an important part of your lymphatic system, which helps fight infections. Because of their location, the tonsils often catch bacteria or viruses that enter via the throat.  

The terms tonsillitis and strep throat are sometimes used interchangeably, but it’s important to learn the difference between the two conditions. Strep throat is a bacterial infection in the throat that can cause tonsillitis, while tonsillitis is the inflammation and infection of the tonsils. You can get tonsillitis from a viral or bacterial infection.

Tonsillitis mostly affects children from ages two and up. Adults can get tonsillitis too, but it’s not as common. Since the bacteria or virus that causes tonsillitis may be contagious, it’s important to identify symptoms to see if medical attention is needed. 

Signs of tonsillitis

Sore throat

A sore throat may be the first sign of tonsillitis you notice. A red, scratchy throat and pain or discomfort when swallowing are symptoms of tonsillitis. 

Swollen tonsils 

You may find that your tonsils are large, red, and swollen. When swallowing, you may feel like there are obstructions in your throat.

White or yellow patches on the tonsils

A buildup of either pus or mucus may create yellow or white patches on the tonsils. These patches might look either like streaks or more like a coating on the tonsils.  In more serious cases of tonsillitis, you may find an abscess, which is a pocket of pus that signals an infection,directly on the tonsil.  

Bad breath 

The bacteria or virus culture in the throat may cause bad breath.  

Fever

Someone with tonsillitis may develop a fever as a result of their body fighting the infection. If you develop a high fever from tonsillitis, you should see the doctor as soon as possible. 

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Causes of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is caused by either a bacterial or viral infection. Both bacterial and viral cases are usually spread person-to-person through airborne droplets, coughs, or sneezes. Tonsillitis itself isn’t contagious, but the bacteria or virus that causes it is. 

Viral infections

Viral infections are more common in very young children and cause the majority of tonsillitis cases. The virus causing tonsillitis may be a strain of the flu virus, parainfluenza virus, or many other different viruses. 

Bacterial infections

Bacterial infections cause 15% to 30% of tonsillitis cases. These cases usually begin as strep throat or another bacterial infection. 

When to see the doctor for tonsillitis

Most cases of tonsillitis should be seen by a doctor. The most urgent symptoms are: 

  • Swollen tonsils with visible abscess
  • High fever of more than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Extreme difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • A throat swab taken by a clinician tests positive for strep throat
  • Chronic tonsillitis, when tonsillitis occurs more than seven times per year

Diagnosis for tonsillitis

When you visit the doctor, they will ask you about your symptoms and conduct a throat and ear examination. They will swab the back of your throat to determine if your infection is viral or bacterial. They may perform a rapid strep test, which tests for bacteria that causes strep throat and shows almost immediate results. 

Alternatively, they may want to test for throat culture. The results of this test usually take longer to determine, because they are typically sent to a lab

Treatments for tonsillitis

Treatment for tonsillitis depends on the cause.  For bacterial infections, the doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics.

Viral infections tend to pass more quickly on their own than bacterial cases. There is less the doctor can do in these cases, although they may want to continue monitoring your symptoms. They may prescribe medication or recommend over-the-counter medicine to make you more comfortable. 

If you’re suffering from chronic tonsillitis, the doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, or tonsil removal. This is a routine and fairly common procedure in most hospitals.

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References
Baylor College of Medicine: “When to worry about a sore throat.”

Cooper Health: “Tonsillitis in Adults.”

ENT Health: “Tonsillitis.”

Healthy Children: “The Difference between a Sore Throat, Strep & Tonsillitis.”

Healthy Children: “Tonsillitis.”

Healthlink BC: “Tonsillitis.”

Medline Plus: “Tonsillitis.”

Mount Sinai: “Tonsillitis.”

Plain Language Summary for Patients: “Tonsillectomy in Children.”

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