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What Is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils caused by viruses or some types of bacteria. Tonsils are lumps of tissue on both sides of the back of the throat that help the immune system protect the body from infections.

Infected tonsils get swollen and red, and have a yellow or white coating. A child with tonsillitis may have a sore throat, fever, swollen glands in the neck, and trouble swallowing.tonsillitis illustration

How Is Tonsillitis Diagnosed?

The health care provider will ask about your child's symptoms and examine the throat and neck. He or she may use a soft cotton swab to gently collect a sample from the tonsils and back of the throat.

The doctor needs to know if streptococci bacteria are causing the infection. If it's strep throat, your child will need treatment with an antibiotic to kill the bacteria.

If the strep test results are negative, it's probably a virus causing the tonsillitis and antibiotics won't help. Your child should take it easy for several days while the virus runs its course.

How Is Tonsillitis Treated?

Treatment for tonsillitis depends on whether it is caused by a virus or by bacteria.

If tonsillitis is caused by a virus, the body will fight off the infection on its own. If it's caused by strep bacteria, the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. Make sure that your child takes the antibiotics exactly as directed and finishes the entire prescription — even if he or she starts feeling better in a few days — or the infection could come back.

Sometimes, a doctor might recommend a tonsillectomy (surgery to remove the tonsils) if a child's tonsils get infected a lot or are so big they make it hard to breathe at night.

How Can I Help My Child Feel Better?

Make sure that your child drinks lots of fluids and gets plenty of rest. If it hurts your child to swallow, serve liquids and soft foods, like soups, milkshakes, smoothies, ice pops, or ice cream.

Keep your child's drinking glasses and eating utensils separate, and wash them in hot, soapy water.

You can give a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, for throat pain. Don't give aspirin or other products that contain aspirin, though, because these can put kids at risk for Reye syndrome.

Can Tonsillitis Be Prevented?

Tonsillitis is contagious. Sneezing and coughing can pass the tonsillitis-causing virus or bacteria from one person to the next. So try to keep kids away from anyone who already has tonsillitis or a sore throat, and make sure everyone in your family washes their hands well and often.

Date reviewed: April 2016