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Tonsillitis

Way in the back of your throat are your tonsils — one on the right and one on the left. They are part of your body's infection-fighting system to keep you from getting sick.

But what happens if these infection fighters get infected? Then you have tonsillitis (say: tahn-suh-LYE-tus).

What Are Tonsils?

The tonsils' job is to help fight germs that come in through our mouth or nose before they cause infections in the rest of the body. Usually, tonsils do their job well. But sometimes bacteria or viruses get into the tonsils and infect them. When this happens, you have tonsillitis.

How Can I Tell if I Have Tonsillitis?

If you have tonsillitis, your throat usually hurts and it's hard to eat, drink, or even swallow. You also might have a fever. Here are some other signs that bacteria or a virus are infecting your tonsils:

  • red (swollen or irritated) tonsils
  • a yellow or white coating on the tonsils
  • swollen glands in the neck
  • fever
  • bad breath

What Will the Doctor Do?

The doctor will ask you how you've been feeling and then look at your tonsils. He or she will probably use a wooden stick called a tongue depressor to help hold your tongue down to get a good look at what's going on in there.

The doctor also might look into your nose and ears, listen to your chest, feel your neck, and look for other signs of infection. Bacteria and viruses both can cause tonsillitis. It's important for your doctor to know if it's strep. Strep is short for streptococci (say: strep-toh-KAX-eye) bacteria. If you have this kind of infection, you need medicine, called an antibiotic, to kill the strep bacteria.

To check for strep, the doctor will use a long cotton swab to swipe the back of your throat. This test, called a throat culture, doesn't hurt, but it might make you gag. Your doctor may use the swab to do a test called a rapid strep test.

Within minutes, this test will tell your doctor if there are any strep bacteria in your throat. But sometimes, the rapid strep test does not show any strep bacteria. Your doctor may send the throat culture to a lab and get results back in 1-2 days.

How Is Tonsillitis Treated?

If the tonsillitis is caused by strep bacteria, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics, a type of medicine that kills bacteria. It's very important to take the antibiotics exactly as you're supposed to and finish the entire prescription to kill all the bacteria. You should finish the medicine even if you start feeling better in the first few days.

If the tonsillitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't work and your body will fight off the infection on its own. Sometimes kids get an operation to remove their tonsils, but only if their tonsils get infected a lot during the year or are so big they make it hard for the kid to breathe at night.

If you get tonsillitis, here are some tips that can help you feel better:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • If you are having trouble swallowing regular food, you can eat smooth foods, including flavored gelatin, soups, ice-pops, and applesauce.
  • Take it easy until you feel better.
  • Wash your hands often.

Soon your tonsils will be back in action and ready to fight germs again!

Date reviewed: December 2015

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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