The tonsils are glands in the back of the throat that are part of the lymphatic system and produce white blood cells to help your body fight off bacteria and viruses that enter through the nose or mouth. When the tonsils become infected, they swell and cause swallowing problems, which leads to a condition called tonsillitis. Tonsillitis can happen to people of all ages, but it is especially common in children and teenagers.

Tonsillitis Symptoms

With tonsillitis, the throat will feel swollen and look red. You might also be able to see white spots on your tonsils or the back of your tongue.

The most common tonsillitis symptoms are:

  • A sore or scratchy throat
  • Painful swallowing or difficulty swallowing
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes (glands in the sides of the neck or jaw)
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Earache

Most people experience bouts of tonsillitis when they get sick. Strep throat, a common cold, the flu or mononucleosis are often accompanied with tonsillitis. Tonsillitis can also become a recurring (goes away with treatment and comes back) or a chronic issue (when symptoms last for more than two weeks). In chronic tonsillitis cases, the cause is not usually an infection. Allergies, acid reflux and even tonsil stones can lead to chronic tonsillitis. Tonsil stones can be caused by food and bacteria particles getting trapped in the throat, stuck on the tonsils and eventually hardening (calcifying) into stones. Bad breathe is a common symptom.

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any of these signs of chronic tonsillitis:

  • Recurring sore throats
  • An ongoing sore throat that lasts longer than three weeks
  • Swallowing difficulties that last for two or three weeks
  • Ongoing throat pain
  • Voice changes
  • Mild breathing discomfort (for serious breathing problems, call 911)
  • Sleep apnea

Tonsillitis Treatment

To effectively treat tonsillitis, it is important to first identify the cause. Acute tonsillitis (comes on suddenly and is severe) is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection and is easily treated with anti-inflammatories and occasionally, antibiotics. Over-the-counter throat sprays, cough drops, gargling with salt water and even using a water flosser device on the back of the tongue and throat can all provide relief. Most people will recover in one or two weeks.

Chronic tonsillitis is usually treated with a tonsillectomy — a simple, outpatient procedure to remove the tonsils. While the tonsils are part of your immune system, they are only a very small part of it, which is why they can be removed with little to no impact on your overall health. For people with chronic tonsillitis, surgically removing the tonsils is the healthier option.

Sometimes, we also recommend removing the adenoids at the same time. The adenoids are another pair of lymphatic glands (located near the tonsils) and cause some of the same issues.

A tonsillectomy (with or without an adenoidectomy) is a low-risk procedure that takes about 20 minutes to perform. The recovery is usually easier on children than adults and can take around two weeks.

A Team Approach to Tonsillitis and Swallowing Disorders

People with tonsillitis and other swallowing disorders are usually treated by an otolaryngologist, otherwise called an ear, nose and throat specialist. An otolaryngologist can examine and make a diagnosis based on the visual structure of your throat, which may appear narrow, inflamed or irritated. But in some cases, diagnosing throat disorders can be more complex because the function of the throat muscles also need to be evaluated.

This can go beyond ear, nose and throat care and can involve other experts in radiology, gastroenterology and highly trained specialists. We have the advantage of being able to consult and collaborate with many different specialists across the Froedtert & MCW health network, which makes treating even the most complex throat issues possible.

Virtual Visits Are Available

Safe and convenient virtual visits by video let you get the care you need via a mobile device, tablet or computer wherever you are. We'll assess your condition and develop a treatment plan right away. To schedule a virtual visit, call 414-777-7700.

Learn More