Tonsillitis is inflammation that occurs in the tonsils, which are located in the back of the throat. The tonsils are actually part of the immune system; they are technically glands made of lymph tissue, like the lymph nodes that are located elsewhere in the body. The tonsils act like filters, getting rid of some of the bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the mouth; they contain white blood cells that attack these invaders. The tonsils are much more active in children, and so are tonsil problems: Tonsillitis is far more common in children than it is in adults.
Tonsillitis usually occurs when a person has an infection. The common cold virus can cause tonsillitis in young children. Strep throat, which is caused by a type of bacterium called Streptococcus A, also has tonsillitis as a common complication. Mononucleosis, or mono, a viral infection, can also result in swelling of the tonsils and other lymph tissue. Strep throat in particular can cause other health problems and may have serious complications in some cases, so it is important that a child with tonsillitis goes to the doctor and is screened for it.
Symptoms of tonsillitis include sore throat, visibly swollen tonsils, tonsils that are more red than usual, white or yellow spots or a film on the tonsils, difficulty eating or swallowing, enlarged cervical (neck) lymph nodes, fever, headache, scratchy voice, halitosis (bad breath) and stomach ache. It is rare, but some cases of tonsillitis involve the formation of an abscess, which is a pus-filled pocket, behind the tonsil. Tonsillar abscesses may need to be drained with a needle.
A simple throat swab can check to see whether the tonsillitis is caused by a bacterium or a virus while the patient is still at the doctor’s office. If the causative agent is a bacterium, it is most likely strep throat. A more accurate laboratory test can help narrow the cause down further and more reliably. If the causative agent is Streptococcus bacteria, antibiotics will be prescribed to get rid of the infection because it is contagious and it can cause rare but serious health problems in some cases if it is left untreated. Over-the-counter and home remedies can be used to treat symptoms regardless of the cause of the tonsillitis. Severe and frequently recurring cases of tonsillitis may benefit from surgery to remove the tonsils, called a tonsillectomy, because the tonsils are not necessary and the surgery is minimally invasive and has a short recovery period.