Updated on February 9, 2024
4 min read

Swollen Tonsils – Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

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What Causes Swollen Tonsils?

Swollen tonsils are a common sign of tonsillitis, which is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Tonsillitis causes swollen (inflamed) tonsils. The tonsils are two small glands at the back of your throat.

Normal tonsils and inflamed tonsils comaprison illustration

A little over half of all tonsillitis cases are caused by viral infections. The rest are 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

Throat cancer can also cause swelling of the tonsils. However, throat cancer usually only involves one tonsil.4

Symptoms of Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis can have other symptoms beyond tonsil swelling. Common tonsillitis symptoms include:

  • Red tonsils, sometimes with a whitish discharge (exudate)
  • Sore throat, which may cause trouble swallowing
  • General discomfort or malaise
  • Fever and chills
  • Ear pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph glands in your neck
  • Pus-filled spots on the tonsils
  • Bad breath

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

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if you have swollen tonsils and a sore throat for over a day or two.

Other signs you should see a doctor include:

  • The swelling is so severe you have difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • High fever
  • Severe pain

Call your doctor if only one tonsil is swollen. This may be a sign of throat cancer. 

Can I go to the Dentist with Tonsillitis?

You can see your dentist if you think you have tonsillitis. However, your primary care physician is probably the best healthcare professional to call.

Tonsillitis Complications 

Bacterial tonsillitis caused by streptococcus A (strep throat) can lead to serious complications if left untreated. For this reason, antibiotics are often prescribed for bacterial tonsillitis.

Potential complications of tonsillitis include: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)

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

How is Tonsillitis Diagnosed?

To diagnose swollen tonsils, your 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 have a strep infection. This involves a throat swab, which gets tested for strep bacteria.

How to Treat Tonsillitis

Once your doctor determines whether you have tonsillitis caused by a viral or bacterial infection, they’ll recommend the best treatment.

Treatment for tonsillitis is usually a combination of home remedies and professional treatments.

Home Remedies

Home care can help relieve many common symptoms of tonsillitis. Remedies include:

  • Reduce pain and fever — With over-the-counter (OTC) medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen 
  • Drink plenty of fluids — Warm water, herbal tea, and broth can all provide comfort to your throat and tonsils
  • Add honey to warm water or tea Honey has antimicrobial properties and can act as a cough suppressant8
  • Eat comforting foods — Cold foods like ice cream can have a soothing effect
  • Gargle warm salt water — Mix ½ teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water
  • Use a humidifier — Dry air can irritate the throat
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and crunchy foods — Alcohol and caffeine are dehydrating, and crunchy foods can irritate the throat 

Professional Treatments 

Professional treatments for tonsillitis include:

  • Antibiotics to fight infection (for tonsillitis caused by bacteria)
  • Steroid medications to reduce swelling
  • Tonsillectomy surgery (for severe and repeated infections)

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
  • Getting adequate sleep to support your immune system
  • Maintaining good oral hygiene

What is the Outlook for Swollen Tonsils?

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

When tonsillitis lasts longer than a week or keeps coming back, it’s called chronic tonsillitis. People with chronic tonsillitis might need surgery.


Swollen tonsils are a common symptom of tonsillitis, which viruses or bacteria can cause. Other common symptoms of tonsillitis include sore throat and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

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

Last updated on February 9, 2024
13 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 9, 2024
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, M, and Anari, S. “Infections and foreign bodies in ENT.” Surgery (Oxford, Oxfordshire), 2018.
  2. Bird, JH, et al. “Controversies in the management of acute tonsillitis: an evidence-based review.” Clinical Otolaryngology, 2014.
  3. Vokes, EE, et al. “HPV-Associated Head and Neck Cancer.” JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2015.
  4. Tonsil Stones.” Cleveland Clinic, 2021.
  5. Georgalas, C, et al. “The Association between Periodontal Disease and Peritonsillar Infection: A Prospective Study.” Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 2002.
  6. Windfuhr, JP, et al. “Clinical practice guideline: tonsillitis I. Diagnostics and nonsurgical management.” European Archives of Otorhinolaryngology, 2016.
  7. Pasupuleti, VR, et al. “Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2017.
  8. Stelter, K. “Tonsillitis and sore throat in children.” GMS Current Topics in Otorhinolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, 2014.
  9. Bhattacharyya N, et al. “Efficacy and Quality-of-Life Impact of Adult Tonsillectomy.” JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 2001.
  10. Mitchell, RB, et al. “Clinical Practice Guideline: Tonsillectomy in Children (Update).” Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 2019.
  11. Nutrition and Immunity.” Harvard School of Public Health, nd.
  12. Mark, AM. “Oral and throat cancer.” JADA The Journal of the American Dental Association, 2019.
  13. Spinks, A, et al. “Antibiotics for treatment of sore throat in children and adults.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2021.
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