Tonsillitis most often affects kids and teens, but adults can develop it, too. Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils. The tonsils are two small soft tissue masses found on each side of the back of your throat. They’re part of your immune system and they help fight off germs and prevent infections.
Read on to learn more about what causes tonsillitis and how doctors treat the condition in adults.
Symptoms of tonsillitis in adults are similar to symptoms in children, and may include:
- sore throat
- pain when swallowing
- red, swollen tonsils
- white or yellow patches on the tonsils
- enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
- bad breath
- scratchy voice
- stiff neck
Tonsillitis is most often caused by a virus, but sometimes bacteria may also be to blame.
Viruses that can lead to tonsillitis include:
- influenza virus
- common cold viruses
- herpes simplex virus
- Epstein-Barr virus
- measles virus
Bacterial infections cause tonsillitis between 15 to 30 percent of the time. The bacteria responsible for strep throat, known as Streptococcus pyogenes, is the most common cause of bacterial tonsillitis.
While tonsillitis itself isn’t always contagious, the germs that can cause it are.
Risk factors for tonsillitis include young age and exposure to germs that cause viral or bacterial infections.
One reason tonsillitis might be more common in children and teens is because the tonsils play a smaller role in immune function after puberty.
It’s a good idea to wash your hands frequently and avoid sharing drinks with others if you’re prone to infections.
You can still get sore throats and throat infections even if you’ve had your tonsils removed.
See a doctor if your symptoms become severe or last longer than four days without any noticeable improvement.
A physician can diagnose the cause of tonsillitis by asking you questions and examining your throat.
You may also need to have your throat swabbed to see if you have a bacterial infection. This test involves rubbing a sterile swab along the back of your throat to get a sample. The results can take minutes or up to 48 hours, depending on the location of the lab and type of test used.
In some cases, doctors may want to perform a blood test to check your complete blood count. These results can help determine if your tonsillitis is caused by a virus or bacteria.
There’s no specific treatment for viral tonsillitis, but you can help reduce symptoms by:
- getting plenty of rest
- staying hydrated by drinking enough water
- taking pain-relieving medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- gargling a saltwater solution
- using a humidifier
- eating and drinking warm or cold liquids, such as broths, teas, or popsicles
- sucking on throat lozenges
Your doctor might prescribe a steroid medication if your breathing becomes difficult from swollen tonsils.
If you have bacterial tonsillitis, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic, such as penicillin.
If bacterial tonsillitis isn’t treated, an abscess may develop. This is caused by pus collecting in a pocket in the back of your throat. Your doctor might need to drain the abscess with a needle, cut and drain the abscess, or in some cases, perform tonsil removal surgery.
Surgery to remove your tonsils is known as a tonsillectomy. It’s sometimes recommended for very severe or frequent cases of tonsillitis.
Frequent tonsillitis is usually defined as:
- more than seven episodes of tonsillitis in one year
- more than four to five occurrences a year in each of the previous two years
- more than three occurrences a year in each of the previous three years
A tonsillectomy is typically an outpatient procedure, which means you’ll be able to go home the same day.
The surgery is performed the same way in children and adults, but the recovery may take longer if you’re older. Kids typically heal faster, which means they may only need about a week to recover, while adults might require two weeks before returning to work.
Children may also be less likely than adults to experience complications, such as bleeding or significant pain, after the procedure.
There’s not a ton of research to confirm the benefits of tonsillectomy surgery in adults. But, in a 2013 study, scientists from Finland looked at 86 adults with recurrent sore throats. Forty-six of them had a tonsillectomy, and 40 didn’t have the procedure.
After five months, only 39 percent of those who had their tonsils out had an acute sore throat episode compared to 80 percent of those who didn’t have the surgery. Adults who had their tonsils removed also reported fewer medical visits and absences from school or work.
If you experience chronic or recurrent sore throats involving your tonsils, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of having tonsil surgery.
In rare cases, your tonsils can grow back after surgery.
Tonsillitis is more common in children, but adults can also develop the condition. If you develop tonsillitis, a viral infection is the most likely culprit, but it could also be caused by a bacterial infection.
Many cases of tonsillitis will get better on their own, usually within a week. If your condition keeps coming back, is severe, or doesn’t respond to simple treatment, talk to your doctor about whether surgery is right for you.