What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is when your tonsils become inflamed, infected and swollen. Tonsils are glands that lie in two bands on either side of the back of your throat. They play an important part in helping to protect your body against infection.

Tonsillitis is common in children but anyone can catch it no matter what their age. It is not possible to be immunised against it, so people can catch it repeatedly.

What causes tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is caused by viruses or, less often, bacteria (most commonly the Streptococcus type of bacteria). Often it results from a cold. Colds can spread from person to person in coughs, sneezes and infected fluids from the nose and throat.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

Regardless of whether tonsillitis is caused by a virus or by bacteria, the symptoms are very similar and include:

  • a sore throat;
  • fever;
  • difficulty swallowing;
  • headache;
  • a general feeling of being unwell;
  • painful and swollen lymph nodes (glands) at the side of the neck;
  • red, swollen and painful tonsils; and
  • occasionally, pus, or small ulcerated areas, on the tonsils.

Sometimes younger children may have nausea, vomiting and tummy pain. If there are other signs of a cold such as a runny nose, cough and sore eyes, the tonsillitis is more likely to have a viral cause.

How is tonsillitis treated?

If your child is unwell and has a sore throat and fever you should take them to a doctor. The doctor may do a swab of your child’s throat to determine if the tonsillitis has a bacterial or viral cause. If the cause is bacterial, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics, which should ease the fever within about 24 hours. Make sure that the course of antibiotics is completed. Don’t stop giving your child the medicine after a few days just because he or she feels better.

Almost all children and adults with tonsillitis will have some pain, which can vary from mild to severe. Paracetamol can be useful for pain and fever, or your doctor may prescribe another medication. Take the medication as directed.


Give your child soft, cool foods such as jelly and custards if he or she wants to eat. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t want to eat much while he or she is sick. So long as he or she drinks plenty of fluids, his or her appetite should return to normal within a few days.

Offer cold drinks, sips of ice to suck or ice blocks. Jelly and ice cream may be appreciated. Children and older adults should be taken to the doctor if they have not managed to drink anything for 15 hours.


If children are old enough to gargle, a gargle with warm salt water can be used to relieve a painful sore throat. Make sure they spit out the salt water afterwards.


Some children who have frequent bouts of tonsillitis, or who have difficulty breathing because of enlarged tonsils, may need an operation to remove the tonsils (tonsillectomy). In the past, tonsillectomy was a fairly common procedure, but now it’s less frequently recommended.

Preventing tonsillitis

Unfortunately, this is difficult. If the tonsillitis has a viral cause, people can pass the virus on from when they first show signs of being sick until about 5 days after their illness starts. However, you can try to avoid the infection spreading by:

  • keeping your child or children away from people who already have it or who have a sore throat;
  • washing your hands frequently, and encouraging children to do so if you’re looking after someone with tonsillitis (especially important if you have other children who aren’t ill); and
  • keeping the sick person’s eating and drinking utensils separate from those of the rest of the family.

Further information and support for tonsillitis

Talk to your doctor or community health nurse for more information about tonsillitis.

Last Reviewed: 27 April 2009
myDr. Adapted from original material sourced from MediMedia.
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