Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils. It's usually caused by a viral infection, but can also be triggered by a bacterial infection. 

  1. Symptoms include a sore throat, high temperature, coughing and a headache
  2. Mostly caused by the same virus as the common cold or flu
  3. Bacterial cases may require antibiotics

If you are concerned about prolonged symptoms of tonsillitis and would like to speak to a doctor, you can book an appointment to use our private online video consultation service. Our UK doctors will be able to issue advice about managing your symptoms and prescribe treatment, should you require it.

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What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. It's most common in children and young adults, and particularly prevalent in the winter months of the year. The condition is self-limiting, and will usually last for 3-4 days. Symptoms that persist for longer than this warrant an examination from a GP.

What symptoms does tonsillitis cause?

People with tonsillitis suddenly develop a sore throat, a high temperature of 38 degrees or more, pain when swallowing and common cold symptoms, such as a cough and runny nose. For bacterial tonsillitis, there will usually be an absence of symptoms for the common cold, and it can be confirmed by a doctor through an examination and swab test. An infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria will make the tonsils swell and develop a coating; however, it is not always possible to definitively confirm a diagnosis simply from these characteristics, and further tests may be needed.

Who gets tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is most widespread in children between the ages of 5-10, followed by young adults aged 15-25. In the UK, tonsillitis has an incidence rate of around 100 per 1,000 people in general practices, making it a very common condition. The incidence rate could be higher, but many people who have tonsillitis do not require a visit to the GP. It's thought that bacterial tonsillitis accounts for around 5-15% of all adults with tonsillitis and 15-30% of all children with tonsillitis. Risk factors for contracting tonsillitis are related to family history and immune deficiency.

Complications of tonsillitis are rare, and typically apply to bacterial infections only. Some possible complications include otitis media, which is an infection of the ear, and a peritonsillar abscess. Recurrent tonsillitis can lead to a recommendation from a clinician to remove the tonsils, which is known as tonsillectomy. This procedure is advocated particularly if repeat infections are bacterial and are causing an enlargement of the tonsils, which may obstruct the airways.

If you have tonsillitis and are concerned about symptoms, you can book an appointment on our website to speak to a doctor online. Our doctors are available at a time most suitable for you. They will be able to issue advice about how to manage your symptoms at home and whether you need further treatment for a bacterial infection. 

Our prescribers can also issue you with a prescription, which is dispensed at our pharmacy, or they can send an e-prescription to your local pharmacy so that you can pick it up at your convenience.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

How is tonsillitis diagnosed?

Tonsilitis can usually be diagnosed by identifying symptoms. A sore throat, high temperature, coughing and headache develop quickly. However, if symptoms last for more than four days or are very severe, an examination by a doctor may be required to rule out other conditions. This will involve examining the tonsils for signs of infection and examining the neck to check for swollen lymph nodes.

Will I need tests?

In most cases, indications of symptoms or an examination by a doctor will suffice in confirming a diagnosis. However, a doctor may decide to take a throat swab for analysis in a lab. This is to test for the presence of streptococcal bacteria, and the results are normally turned around very quickly.

What will a doctor normally advise?

For viral tonsillitis, a doctor will advise rest and using home remedies to alleviate symptoms. These include drinking plenty of fluids, gargling salt water, avoiding potential irritants such as alcohol and smoking, and taking lozenges. Tonsillitis is quite an infectious condition, so it's advisable to avoid social contact for the duration of the infection and not go to work (particularly if fever symptoms are severe). 

In the event of bacterial tonsillitis, you may be prescribed antibiotics to clear up the infection.

What treatments are there for tonsillitis?

Treatments for viral tonsillitis (which is far more common), consist of resting (to allow the infection to clear over a few days) and avoiding aggravating the infection. 

Bacterial tonsillitis is typically treated with a course of penicillin (or penicillin variant) for 10 days to clear the infection.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is tonsillitis treated?

Tonsillitis is not treated with any specific medication if it has been caused by a viral infection. A course of antibiotics will however be required if the infection is bacterial.

What treatments are there?

Treatment for viral tonsillitis comprises of allowing the infection to clear by managing symptoms at home. A doctor will advise you to rest for the duration of the infection and avoid contact with others to prevent it from spreading. You can also help to alleviate symptoms by drinking plenty of fluids, gargling salt water and sucking on lozenges.

The antibiotic used to treat bacterial tonsillitis will depend on the bacteria causing it, but usually a form of penicillin is the preferred option.

Can I consult a doctor about tonsillitis online?

If you think you have tonsillitis and want to speak to a doctor online, you can do so by using our private online video consultation service. Our prescribers can help you with managing your symptoms and discuss potential treatment options with you if the infection is bacterial.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020

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