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Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is an infection, commonly caused by a virus, that affects the tonsils in your throat. It can also be caused by a bacterial infection, like strep throat.

Your tonsils are part of your immune system. When you catch a cold or flu, your tonsils help your body fight the infection. If you have tonsillitis, your tonsils swell up and get sore. You’ll probably feel fluey or like you have a cold.

Tonsillitis symptoms

Tonsillitis involves a swelling of the tonsils, so the most apparent symptom of tonsillitis is a sore, swollen throat. Your tonsils may also look red.

Other tonsillitis symptoms include:

  • Pain when you swallow

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • A high temperature

  • A cough

  • Headache

  • Earache

  • Feeling sick

  • Tummy pain

  • Tiredness

With more severe tonsillitis, you might have:

  • Swollen glands that you can feel by touching the outside of your neck

  • White spots filled with pus on your tonsils

  • Smelly breath

Is tonsillitis contagious?

The cold, flu virus, or bacterial infection that causes tonsillitis is contagious. If you or your child have tonsillitis:

  • Stay home from work or school until the symptoms get better

  • Use tissues to catch coughs or sneezes, and flush them in the toilet or throw them away properly

  • Wash your hands often

Tonsillitis treatment

There isn’t a treatment for viral tonsillitis, but there are ways you can make yourself feel better while you have it:

  • Get lots of rest while you have tonsillitis symptoms

  • Drink lots of cool drinks to soothe your sore throat

  • Gargle with warm salt water (adults only – children shouldn’t do this in case they swallow it)

  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen

  • Eat ice lollies

  • Suck lozenges or use throat spray

If you have bacterial tonsillitis, a GP might prescribe antibiotics.

When to talk to a GP about tonsillitis

If you have white spots on your tonsils or your throat is so sore that it’s hard to swallow food or drink, speak to a GP.

You should also talk to them if you have tonsillitis symptoms for longer than 4 days. They might want to do a swab test to check for bacterial tonsillitis or a blood test to check for glandular fever.

Complications of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis doesn’t usually cause complications but can affect you more if you have a weakened immune system.

Some people get tonsillitis a lot, known as recurrent tonsillitis. A GP might recommend having your tonsils taken out (a tonsillectomy) if it’s making you miss lots of work or for a child who is missing lots of school. Children often grow out of getting tonsillitis as they get older, so a GP might recommend waiting to see if that happens.

If you have bacterial tonsillitis, you may get a build-up of pus (an abscess known as quinsy) trapped behind or around your tonsils. A GP will prescribe antibiotics and might recommend surgery to drain it. They may also refer you to a specialist to talk about having a tonsillectomy.

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: