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Swollen Tonsils - Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Updated on June 16, 2022
Khushbu Gopalakrishnan Headshot
Written by Aaron Clarius
Medically Reviewed by Khushbu Gopalakrishnan

What Causes Swollen Tonsils?

Tonsillitis, or inflammation or swelling of the tonsils, is usually caused by an infection. A little over half of all tonsillitis cases are caused by viral infections, with the rest caused by bacterial infections.1, 2

The same viruses that cause the common cold can cause tonsillitis. Most cases of bacterial tonsillitis are due to strep throat.1, 2

Tonsillitis often runs its course within about a week, whether viral or bacterial.3 However, bacterial tonsillitis can sometimes lead to more serious systemic illnesses.

Tonsillitis and throat cancer can both present with inflammation of the tonsils. However, throat cancer usually only involves one tonsil.4

Symptoms of Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis can have other symptoms beyond tonsil swelling. These may include:1, 2

  • Red tonsils, sometimes with a whitish discharge (exudate)
  • Sore throat, which may make swallowing painful
  • General discomfort or malaise
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck

Tonsillitis can sometimes be associated with tonsil stones, which are small, calcified deposits on the surface of the tonsils.5

Tonsillitis and related conditions can be associated with poor oral hygiene, which can also lead to tooth decay and gingivitis. 

When to See a Professional

You should see a dentist or doctor if you have swollen tonsils and feel unwell or suspect you have tonsillitis.

A doctor will examine your throat and take into account the following:2

  • Your age
  • Whether or not you’ve had a fever, cough, or painful lymph nodes
  • Any discharge (exudate) that may be present on your tonsils

You may be given a rapid strep test to determine whether or not you’re dealing with a streptococcus (bacterial) infection.7

Once tonsillitis has been diagnosed and your doctor has a good idea of whether it’s viral or bacterial in origin, they can move forward with more specific treatment.

How to Treat Tonsillitis

Home Remedies

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help reduce the pain and fever associated with tonsillitis.7

Warm water, herbal tea, and broth can all provide comfort to your throat and tonsils. Cold foods like ice cream can also have a soothing effect.

Adding honey to warm water or herbal tea may provide additional benefits. Honey has antimicrobial properties and can act as a cough suppressant.8

Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided, as they can both contribute to dehydration. Avoid crunchy foods, which could provoke a cough.

Professional Treatments 

Bacterial tonsillitis can generally be treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin or amoxicillin. However, antiviral treatments aren’t likely to be given for viral tonsillitis.7

Steroid medications may also be prescribed to reduce swelling.7, 9

In cases of severe and recurrent tonsillitis, the tonsils may be removed in a procedure called a tonsillectomy. While tonsillectomy can improve quality of life, it sometimes has little effect and isn’t without complications.10, 11

How to Prevent Swollen Tonsils and Tonsillitis 

There’s no way to ensure you’ll never get tonsillitis. But there are some steps you can take to reduce your vulnerability to tonsillitis-causing viruses and bacteria.

The following practices can help lower your chances of getting tonsillitis:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly and regularly
  • Avoiding close contact or sharing food with people who are currently sick
  • Disinfecting frequently used surfaces such as phone screens and doorknobs
  • Maintaining a balanced diet and getting adequate sleep to support your immune system12
  • Maintaining good oral hygiene6

Tonsillitis Complications 

Bacterial tonsillitis caused by streptococcus A (strep throat) can sometimes lead to complications if left untreated, such as:1, 7

  • Rheumatic fever (inflammation of multiple organs, including the heart)
  • Kidney disease (glomerulonephritis)
  • Quinsy (also known as peritonsillar abscess, an infection behind the tonsils)

For this reason, antibiotics are often prescribed for bacterial tonsillitis.1, 7, 9

Summary

Swollen tonsils are a common symptom of tonsillitis, which can be caused by viruses or bacteria.

You can prevent tonsillitis by maintaining good oral hygiene, frequently washing your hands, and disinfecting high-traffic areas.

Bacterial tonsillitis can sometimes lead to further complications, but it can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Home remedies and over-the-counter drugs can relieve pain and discomfort from tonsillitis.

Last updated on June 16, 2022
13 Sources Cited
Last updated on June 16, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. De, Mriganka, and Shahram Anari. “Infections and foreign bodies in ENT.” Surgery (Oxford, Oxfordshire) vol. 36,10 : 553-559. doi:10.1016/j.mpsur.2018.08.008
  2. Bird, J H et al. “Controversies in the management of acute tonsillitis: an evidence-based review.” Clinical otolaryngology : official journal of ENT-UK ; official journal of Netherlands Society for Oto-Rhino-Laryngology & Cervico-Facial Surgery vol. 39,6 : 368-74. doi:10.1111/coa.12299
  3. Vokes, Everett E. et al. "HPV-Associated Head and Neck Cancer." JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute vol. 107,12 .
  4. Tonsil Stones.” Cleveland Clinic.
  5. Georgalas, Christos, et al. “The Association between Periodontal Disease and Peritonsillar Infection: A Prospective Study.” Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, vol. 126, no. 1, Jan. 2002, pp. 91–94, doi:10.1067/mhn.2002.121318.
  6. Windfuhr, Jochen P et al. “Clinical practice guideline: tonsillitis I. Diagnostics and nonsurgical management.” European archives of oto-rhino-laryngology : official journal of the European Federation of Oto-Rhino-Laryngological Societies (EUFOS) : affiliated with the German Society for Oto-Rhino-Laryngology - Head and Neck Surgery vol. 273,4 : 973-87. doi:10.1007/s00405-015-3872-6
  7. Pasupuleti, Visweswara Rao et al. “Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits.” Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity vol. 2017 : 1259510. doi:10.1155/2017/1259510
  8. Stelter, Klaus. “Tonsillitis and sore throat in children.” GMS current topics in otorhinolaryngology, head and neck surgery vol. 13 Doc07. 1 Dec. 2014, doi:10.3205/cto000110
  9. Bhattacharyya N et al. “Efficacy and Quality-of-Life Impact of Adult Tonsillectomy.” Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. vol. 127,11 :1347–1350. doi:10.1001/archotol.127.11.1347
  10. Mitchell, Ron B., et al. “Clinical Practice Guideline: Tonsillectomy in Children (Update).” Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, vol. 160, no. 1_suppl, Feb. 2019, pp. S1–S42, doi:10.1177/0194599818801757.
  11. Nutrition and Immunity.” Harvard School of Public Health.
  12. Mark, Anita M. "Oral and throat cancer." Journal of the American Dental Association, vol. 150,4 : 324.
  13. Spinks, Anneliese et al. "Antibiotics for treatment of sore throat in adults." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews vol. 2021,12.
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