What is tonsillitis and is it contagious? Symptoms and treatment – here's what we know

EVERYONE has become a lot more familiar with their tonsils over the course of the Covid pandemic.

Regular testing for the virus has meant Brits have had to locate their tonsils to swab them, and now the classic winter bug of tonsillitis is returning.

Where are your tonsils?

The tonsils are at the rear of the throat, right at the back of the mouth. There is one on either side.

They sit on each side of the throat and can usually be seen by saying "aaaah" and pushing your tongue down.

The tonsils prevent foreign objects from going into the lungs.

They also filter bacteria and viruses as one of the first lines of defence.

What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils.

It is usually caused by a viral infection or, less commonly, a bacterial infection.


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In young children, they help to fight germs and act as a barrier against infection.

When the tonsils become infected they isolate the infection and stop it from spreading further.

As children grow up and their immune system develops and gets stronger, the tonsils shrink.

Most people are able to fight infections without the tonsils, but the removal of the tonsils is only recommended if they're causing problems.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

The main symptoms of tonsillitis are:

  • a sore throat
  • pus-filled spots on the tonsils that look white or yellow
  • swollen and red tonsils that make swallowing difficult

Other symptoms include

  • a high temperature
  • coughing
  • headache
  • earache
  • loss of voice or changes to your voice
  • feeling sick/tired
  • swollen, painful glands in your neck

The symptoms usually get better after three to four days.

If you have tonsillitis caused by a viral infection, your symptoms may be milder.

If it is caused by a bacterial infection then the symptoms will be more severe, and you may have bad breath.

What to do if you have tonsillitis?

There is no specific treatment and most cases get better within a week without treatment.

But there are things you can do to speed up recovery.

Make sure you have plenty to eat and drink.

Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, can relieve a sore throat.

Antibiotics can be prescribed if the illness is caused by a bacterial infection.

In rare occasions, removal of the tonsils is necessary, if tonsillitis is persistent.

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