What is tonsillitis?
Tonsils are two glands located at the back of the throat and can be seen through the mouth. These glands help prevent infections from developing in the body. Tonsillitis happens when the tonsils become inflamed or infected by viruses or bacteria.
Tonsillitis is a common infection in children, but can also occur at any age. Most cases of tonsillitis occur in preschool children and through their adolescent years. The usual symptoms of tonsillitis are:
Other symptoms of tonsillitis may include:
- Feeling sick
- Painful lymph glands
- Hoarseness (abnormal voice changes)
The condition is usually caused by viruses or bacteria, such as Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes strep throat. If tonsillitis caused by Streptococcal bacteria is left untreated, it can lead to serious complications.
The symptoms of tonsillitis often go away within a week up to 10 days. Children with tonsillitis can be diagnosed and treated by a pediatrician, while adults can see an internist or an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.
Causes of Tonsillitis
Tonsillitis is often caused by viral infections, such as those that cause influenza (the flu) and the common cold. In some cases, tonsillitis can also be caused by bacteria, particularly group A Streptococcus bacteria.
Other viruses that can cause tonsillitis include:
- Adenovirus - one of the common causes of diarrhea.
- Enteroviruses - the viruses that cause hand-foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD).
- Rubeola Virus - the virus that causes measles.
- Epstein-Barr Virus - this virus causes infectious mononucleosis (mono) as well as tonsillitis in rare cases.
Is tonsillitis contagious?
The infections that cause tonsillitis are contagious, and not tonsillitis itself. Viruses that cause the common cold and flu are easily spread through direct contact with people who are infected.
When infected people sneeze or cough, tiny droplets that contain the virus are expelled through their mouth and nose. Other people who inhale these contaminated droplets become infected. People also become infected if they touch objects or surfaces that contain contaminated droplets and then touch their face, eyes, mouth, or nose.
Infections caused by these disease-causing agents are easily spread, which is why it is very important to avoid passing the infection to other people by:
- Practicing good handwashing habits, such as washing your hands after using the toilet, before eating, and after sneezing or coughing, if possible.
- Good hygiene etiquette (proper disposal of used tissues in garbage cans, coughing or sneezing into one’s sleeve or elbow instead of coughing or sneezing into one’s hands).
- Avoid sharing of cups, toothbrushes, and other personal items.
- Skipping work, school, and staying away from crowded places until the symptoms have passed.
The symptoms usually improve after 3-4 days. Milder symptoms may also be experienced if tonsillitis is caused by a viral infection. However, when tonsillitis is caused by bacteria, such as a streptococcal infection, the symptoms tend to be more severe along with having bad breath. If tonsillitis is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be given for its treatment.
How long is tonsillitis contagious?
When tonsillitis is caused by a virus, an infected person is usually contagious for about 7-10 days. People with bacterial tonsillitis, on the other hand, may be contagious for about 14 days if the infection is left untreated. However, those who start on antibiotic treatment for strep throat usually become non-contagious after 24 hours.
Complications of Tonsillitis
People who have chronic tonsillitis may develop obstructive sleep apnea, which prevents a restful sleep due to the swelling of the airways. The infection can also become worse and may spread to other parts of the body, such as in the case of tonsillar cellulitis.
In tonsillar cellulitis, a person tends to have a pus buildup behind his or her tonsils, which is also called as peritonsillar abscess. This condition usually require surgery or drainage.
Complications could develop if a person with chronic tonsillitis remains to be untreated or when bacteria tend to become resistant to antibiotics. Tonsillitis complications include poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis and rheumatic fever.
Most tonsillitis cases tend to get better within seven days without treatment. However, symptoms can be relieved by drinking plenty of water along with consuming a balanced diet, even if it is painful to swallow. Dehydration and hunger can make other symptoms worse.
Sore throat and other painful symptoms can be relieved by taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. The correct type and dosage of pain relievers should be given to children with tonsillitis. It is also important to note that aspirin should never be given to children who are younger than 16 years old.
Other available OTC treatments that can help relieve throat pain are oral sprays and lozenges. Another method of relieving a sore throat is to gargle using a mild antiseptic solution. Natural home remedies can also help, such as gargling using warm, salty water. To make this solution, add half a teaspoon of salt to 8 ounces of warm water. Do not swallow the water.
In some cases, antibiotics are not prescribed for the treatment of tonsillitis, even though tests confirm a bacterial infection. There are two reasons why:
- Antibiotics won't help speed up a person's recovery in most cases, but can cause certain side effects, such as feeling sick and abdominal pain or discomfort.
- When mild or non-serious infections are often treated with antibiotics, treating more serious infections later in life tend to become ineffective. This specific type of drug resistance is called antibiotic resistance.
However, antibiotics can be given if the patient has the following:
- Severe symptoms
- Persistent symptoms
- Weakened immune system
The surgical removal of the tonsils is called a tonsillectomy. Watchful waiting is often recommended to children with mild sore throats instead of having a tonsillectomy.
A tonsillectomy may only be considered if tonsillitis occurs for at least seven times in the previous 12 months or one year, at least five times in each of the previous 24 months or two years, or at least three times in each of the previous 36 months or three years.