Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils and will often, but not necessarily, cause a sore throat and fever.
There are 3 main types of tonsillitis: acute, subacute and chronic. Acute tonsillitis can either be bacterial or viral in origin. Subacute tonsillitis is caused by the bacterium Actinomyces. Chronic tonsillitis, which can last for long periods if not treated, is mostly caused by bacterial infection.
Symptoms of tonsillitis include a severe sore throat (which may be experienced as referred pain to the ears), painful/difficult swallowing, coughing, headache, myalgia (muscle aches), fever and chills. Tonsillitis is characterized by signs of red, swollen tonsils which may have a purulent exudative coating of white patches (i.e. pus). Swelling of the cheeks and neck may occur.
Tonsillitis may be caused by Group A streptococcal bacteria, resulting in strep throat. Viral tonsillitis may be caused by numerous viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of infectious mononucleosis) or adenovirus.
Sometimes, tonsillitis is caused by a superinfection of spirochaeta and treponema, in this case called Vincent’s angina or Plaut-Vincent angina.
Although tonsillitis is associated with infection, it is currently unknown whether the swelling and other symptoms are caused by the infectious agents themselves, or by the host immune response to these agents. Tonsillitis may be a result of aberrant immune responses to the normal bacterial flora of the nasopharynx.
Treatments of tonsillitis consist of pain management medications and lozenges. If the tonsillitis is caused by bacteria, then antibiotics are prescribed, with penicillin being most commonly used. Erythromycin and Clarithromycin are used for patients allergic to penicillin.
In many cases of tonsillitis, the pain caused by the inflamed tonsils warrants the prescription of topical anesthetics for temporary relief. Viscous lidocaine solutions are often prescribed for this purpose.
Ibuprofen or other analgesics can help to decrease the edema and inflammation, which will ease the pain and allow the patient to swallow liquids sooner.
When tonsillitis is caused by a virus, the length of illness depends on which virus is involved. Usually, a complete recovery is made within one week; however, some rare infections may last for up to two weeks.
Chronic cases may indicate tonsillectomy (surgical removal of tonsils) as a choice for treatment.
Additionally, gargling with a solution of warm water and salt may reduce pain and swelling.
An abscess may develop lateral to the tonsil during an infection, typically several days after the onset of tonsillitis. This is termed a peritonsillar abscess (or quinsy). Rarely, the infection may spread beyond the tonsil resulting in inflammation and infection of the internal jugular vein giving rise to a spreading septicaemia infection (Lemierre’s syndrome).
In chronic/recurrent cases (generally defined as seven episodes of tonsillitis in the preceding year, five episodes in each of the preceding two years or three episodes in each of the preceding three years), or in acute cases where the palatine tonsils become so swollen that swallowing is impaired, a tonsillectomy can be performed to remove the tonsils. Patients whose tonsils have been removed are certainly still protected from infection by the rest of their immune system.
Bacteria feeding on mucus which accumulates in pits (referred to as “crypts”) in the tonsils may produce whitish-yellow deposits known as tonsilloliths. These may emit an odour due to the presence of volatile sulfur compounds.
Hypertrophy of the tonsils can result in snoring, mouth breathing, disturbed sleep, and obstructive sleep apnea, during which the patient stops breathing and experiences a drop in the oxygen content in the bloodstream. A tonsillectomy can be curative.
In very rare cases, diseases like rheumatic fever or glomerulonephritis can occur. These complications are extremely rare in developed nations but remain a significant problem in poorer nations.