Sore throat

Updated 24 February 2016

What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils, most commonly caused by viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms may include sore throat and fever.

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Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils. The tonsils consist of soft glandular tissue and are part of the body’s immune system.

The tonsils are the two small masses of glandular tissue lying on either side of the back of the throat. Healthy tonsils are small, pinkish lumps, much the same colour as the surrounding area. The two tonsils are usually of about equal size.

The tonsils form part of the body’s immune system. Together with the adenoids situated in the back of the nose, they have an important protective function assisting in defending the body against bacteria and viruses. They do this by helping to form antibodies, which is most important during the first year of life.

Tonsillitis

  • When viruses or bacteria infect the tonsils, they become red and swollen, and can develop white or yellow spots on the surface. This condition is known as tonsillitis. A persistent or recurring infection of the tonsils is called chronic tonsillitis.
  • Tonsillitis is most common in early childhood. This is probably when the tonsils are most involved in fighting disease. As the child gets older, the tonsils become smaller and are less prone to infection.
  • Tonsillitis is generally not a serious problem. However, if a tonsillar abscess develops, the swelling can be severe enough to obstruct breathing.
  • Secondary ear infections usually as a result of the adenoids becoming enlarged and infected often occur at the same time as acute tonsillitis.

Tonsillar abscess

A tonsillar abscess develops when pus collects behind the infected tonsils. This condition can be extremely painful, and may make it difficult for a child to open his or her mouth. If it is not treated, the infection can spread down deeper into the neck, obstructing the airway. Complications from this abscess may be life threatening.

Enlarged tonsils

Repeated infections can cause the tonsils and adenoids to become greatly enlarged. This may obstruct breathing, causing snoring and a disturbed sleep pattern.

Prevalence

Tonsillitis is a very widespread condition in young children between the ages of one and five years. It is uncommon under the age of one year. It is also uncommon in adults. 

Read more: 

Symptoms of tonsillitis 

Causes of tonsillitis 

Diagnosing tonsillitis

Reviewed by Prof Eugene Weinberg, Paediatrician Health24, February 2015.