Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the small glands located at the back of the throat (the tonsils). Tonsillitis is most prevalent in children aged 5 to 15 years but can affect people of all ages. The inflammation is caused by a bacterial or viral infection, although viral infection is the more common.
Let’s look at all there is to know about the symptoms, causes and treatment.
What causes tonsillitis?
The tonsils are not fully understood but the latest research suggests that the tonsils act as a barrier against infection in children with developing immune systems. It is believed that the tonsils act to isolate infection, to prevent it from spreading further in the body. As the immune system matures, the tonsils lose the ability to act in this way and that is why tonsillitis is more common in children.
The medical term used is Pharyngitis. Words ending itis comes from Latin and it means ‘pathology’. It is found in the names of diseases characterized by inflammation. Pharyngitis, therefore, means inflamed tonsils.
Any virus or bacteria that tries to enter the body through the upper respiratory system will encounter the tonsils on its way down. The tonsils will contain the unwelcome visitors and stop them from going further down the body. As a result of this fight against infection, the tonsils will become inflamed and tonsillitis will appear.
Tonsillitis is quite common, especially during childhood. Let’s look at the most common symptoms of tonsillitis.
The symptoms of tonsillitis are:
#1. Throat pain
It’s easy to imagine that when your tonsils are fighting infection and becoming inflamed they will produce a sore throat as a consequence. One of the most common, and earliest, symptoms of tonsillitis is a recurrent tickle at the back of the throat.
A sore throat is common to most respiratory ailments as the tonsils are keeping the ‘bad guys’, whether they are viral or bacterial infections, from entering the body.
#2. Red, swollen tonsils
Of course, those fighters are red and swollen. They’re fighting infection to keep your body healthy. Red and swollen tonsils are a common symptom of tonsilitis.
Ask the child to open her mouth wide, put her tongue out and say ‘Aaaahhhh’. This brings the tongue forward and down, so you can see the child’s tonsils more easily.
#3. Fever or chills
Although there are different types of infection – whether strep bacteria, Epstein Barr virus or any other pathogen – there is a considerable temperature rise as the body fights infection.
Your body uses up a lot of energy while dealing with infection; this translates into severe tiredness. A person with tonsillitis will most likely rest and sleep until the peak of the infection has passed.
#5. Swollen lymph nodes
Lymph nodes are like shining lights for our immune system. Depending on where the defenses are needed, the closest lymph nodes will swell up as they are receiving help to fight the infection.
The nodes that are inflamed during an episode of tonsillitis are at the side and front of the neck, just underneath the jaw.
#6. White or yellow pus-filled spots on the tonsils
One of the most identifiable symptoms used to diagnose tonsillitis is pus. Pus is a white or yellow fluid resulting from fighting infection. The white cells are the blood cells in charge of fighting infection.
In cases of tonsillitis, when pus makes an appearance, it means the infection is well under way.
In the first stages of the process, a tonsillitis diagnosis can be made without the presence of pus spots.
#7. Ear or neck pain
Any of the surrounding areas can be affected by the tonsillitis infection; therefore, neck, ear and sinuses might be fighting, too, which leads to pain in those areas.
An older child will be able to tell you where it hurts; a baby will show you by pulling at her ears. Your healthcare provider will be the right professional to attend to your child if you are in need of medical help.
To find out how to treat ear infections you will find this article of interest: Ear Infections | 10 Natural Remedies For Families.
A headache is one of the most common tonsillitis symptoms. When your body is fighting infection, the sinuses are filled up with fluid and mucus. This causes inflammation of the area, which results in a headache.
When the respiratory system feels threatened, it fights to keep the lungs protected, by creating a lot of mucus. This also causes regular coughing, so the entrance to the lungs is kept clear of any threats.
Because tonsillitis lasts several days, coughing can become really annoying and tiring. The intercostal muscles (those between the ribs) are overused with the coughing action and become painful. For those who suffer recurrent tonsillitis, coughing is one of the most annoying tonsillitis symptoms.
#10. Difficulty breathing
Because of all the excess mucus, it’s common for the nose to become blocked and breathing to become difficult. When we sneeze and cough to clear the mucus out (like the windscreen wipers trying to clear away the heavy rain), the whole area is filled up again shortly afterwards.
It’s common for those with tonsillitis to breathe through the mouth while they are asleep, as the nose tends to be blocked, especially if the person is lying down.
#11. Difficulty swallowing
When you have a sore throat you don’t want to do anything that might make it worse – even if it means you don’t eat for a while. With tonsillitis, when your throat is inflamed and fighting infection and you’re in pain, swallowing becomes a painful task. A baby might show this by refusing to eat.
When I was 20, I suffered a strep throat (streptococcal infection of the tonsils, caused by streptococcus bacteria). Difficulty swallowing is what I remember as the worst part of it. I found out the hard way that we also swallow during our sleep. This was no common tonsillitis but a strep throat infection.
Strep bacteria are responsible for serious conditions like rheumatic fever, tonsillar cellulitis, scarlet fever, impetigo or strep throat.
If you suspect your child has tonsillitis, you can take two different approaches:
- The medical approach. You can take your child to a medical doctor, who will run some tests and, if a bacterial infection is suspected, will most likely prescribe an antibiotic treatment. It is important that your child completes the full course of antibiotics to treat bacterial tonsillitis, even if the symptoms of the infection disappear within a matter of days
- The natural approach. The holistic health approach considers sickness as a wake-up call, alerting us to a deviation from health. When a person falls ill, the body has the power to mend on its own. Accompanying and meeting the sick person’s needs and using natural remedies to help cope with the pain, congestion and other symptoms of tonsillitis should suffice.Garlic oil is a natural antibiotic that helps fight infection efficiently.
Lemon, ginger and honey tea will help calm the sore throat and also helps with hydration while relieving the painful swallowing.
Steam baths are very helpful in relieving congestion. Add one spoonful of turmeric, one spoonful of fenugreek seeds and mint leaves to 2 cups of water. Bring it to the boil and let it simmer for 6-8 minutes. Place it under the person’s face so he can breathe the steam.
Tonsillectomies (removal of the tonsils) are not performed as frequently as they once were, so it is unlikely your child will require the operation. Babies and toddlers are very unlikely to need their tonsils removed. If an older child has suffered recurrent bouts of tonsillitis (chronic tonsillitis), surgery might be an option your doctor wishes to explore. Removing a healthy part of the body might not be a good idea as, obviously, it can never be reinstalled.
You should make sure your child stays hydrated and has plenty of bed rest to help her fight the infection. Cold drinks can help soothe the discomfort caused by tonsillitis. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter pain medication to help treat the symptoms of tonsillitis.
You must keep your child home until she has fought off the infection, to prevent other children from catching it. Your child will also find it easier to fight infection if she is not exposed to new germs and viruses at playgroup or school.
Is tonsillitis contagious?
Yes. Whether the origin is a viral infection or it’s tonsillitis caused by bacteria, it’s easily spread around. Encourage your child to cough and sneeze into a tissue and then throw it in the bin. Good hygiene is important to prevent tonsillitis from spreading, so you should also encourage frequent hand washing.