Head & Neck

Swollen Tonsils; Tonsillitis Causes & Treatments

written by Becki Andrus
Collin County ENT - The Best ENT in Frisco and Plano, TX

If you open your mouth and look in the mirror, you will see small oval-shaped tissue areas located on both sides of the throat.

Tonsils are often out of sight, but they play a role in the lymphatic system, which helps with immune response in the body.

The tonsils are a proactive player in fighting off bacteria and viruses that enter through your mouth.

Tonsillitis: What is it?

Tonsillitis is the medical term for swollen tonsils. Some people have a short-term episode of swollen tonsils because of an illness. For example, you might notice that your tonsils swell when you have a head cold.

There are times when patients experience tonsils that are chronically swollen. In this situation, it’s common for the swelling to be caused by a chronic, long-term condition that could be affecting overall health.

Here is an overview of the three types of tonsillitis:

  • Acute Tonsillitis: Swelling of the tonsils that lasts for a few days, but could be present for as long as two weeks.
  • Recurrent Tonsillitis: When a patient experiences swelled tonsils several times a year.
  • Chronic Tonsillitis: A long-term infection of the tonsils that doesn’t clear up with regular treatment.

Other Symptoms of Tonsillitis

In addition to swollen tonsils, it’s common for other symptoms to be present. Sometimes, these symptoms are noticed before a patient sees that the tonsils are swollen. Or, you might see the swollen tonsils before additional symptoms develop.

What do swollen tonsils feel like? Watch for these symptoms to see if you have tonsillitis:

  • Scratchy, sore throat
  • Irritation and redness in the throat
  • Pain localized on the sides of the neck
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Coating or white spots visible on the tonsils
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath

It’s possible that swollen tonsils without other symptoms are normal, especially in children. But if an adult has swollen tonsils with no other symptoms, then it could be an indication of cancer. When you notice that your tonsil swelling doesn’t go away, then it might be time to talk to an ENT for a professional diagnosis.

Common Causes of Swollen Tonsils

Keep in mind that swollen tonsils are often a symptom of another health condition. If tonsillitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, then you might be diagnosed with one of the following illnesses:

  • Adenoviruses: Viruses that cause the common cold and other related conditions, such as bronchitis or a sore throat.
  • Strep Throat: Streptococcus pyogenes is a bacterial infection, commonly known as “strep throat.” When this infection occurs, it often results in spots and swelling on the tonsils.
  • Herpes Simplex: Herpes type 1 affects the mouth, with people often experiencing cold sores on the lips. Sometimes, this virus can also lead to blisters that form on the tonsils and cause swelling.
  • Allergies: The immune response to allergy triggers can cause the tonsils to swell. This symptom is common in people with seasonal allergies.
  • Dental Infection: Sometimes gum disease or tooth decay can cause the tonsils to swell. You might need to talk to a dentist for the treatment of these mouth infections.
  • Epstein-Barr (EBV): This virus causes mononucleosis, which can have an inflammatory impact on the body. A sore throat or swollen tonsils are often a symptom associated with this disease.
  • Measles: The respiratory system is affected by the measles virus, causing swelling and discomfort through the throat and airways.

Treatment Options: Sinus, Throat, and Overall Health

The most effective way to reduce tonsil swelling is to find the underlying reason why your tissue is inflamed. When we identify the illness or disease that is causing the immune response, then we can treat the condition to eliminate these symptoms.

For example, if a sinus infection is resulting in a post-nasal drip that causes the tonsils to swell, then treating the sinus infection will often clear up tonsillitis.

The approach to tonsillitis treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms and the timeline of your condition.

Short-term swelling related to a head cold often requires minimal treatment to ease your discomfort such as sucking on lozenges, gargling with salt water, and drinking plenty of fluids. As your body fights off the infection, then the swelling will go down. A cold virus usually needs to “run its course” before you start feeling better.

On the other hand, chronic tonsillitis requires treatment from a medical professional. Certain causes of tonsillitis won’t clear up without treatment.

For example, strep throat requires an antibiotic prescription to avoid the bacteria spreading to other parts of the body. Certain viruses can be treated using antiviral medication as needed.

Do You Need Surgery for Tonsillitis?

Surgery is considered a last-resort treatment for swollen tonsils, but there are times when it makes sense to remove the tonsils. This procedure is known as a tonsillectomy.

Frequent, recurring bouts of tonsillitis can interfere with your daily activities. If a person has chronic tonsillitis and the symptoms aren’t responding to normal treatments, then a doctor might recommend surgery to remove the tonsils.

This surgical treatment is done on an outpatient basis, which means that you don’t need to stay the night in the hospital. Surgical removal might be recommended for children who have recurring infections.

Or, sometimes adults need to have their tonsils removed to treat complications such as breathing issues or sleep apnea.

The surgery is completed in as little as 30 minutes, using cauterization or a scalpel to remove the tonsils. It was once a widespread procedure, but doctors are not using this treatment method as often now.

Frequently Asked Questions: Advice from an Ear, Nose, & Throat Doctor

Since we visit with many patients who have swollen tonsils, it’s common for us to answer similar questions about this condition. Here are the answers to a few of your most common questions:

  • How do you get swollen tonsils to go down? When the symptoms are minor, then it’s possible for swollen tonsils to go down with self-care treatment at home. Drink plenty of liquids, get some rest, use a humidifier, and suck on lozenges to reduce the pain.
  • What causes tonsils to swell? Swollen tonsils are often caused by an underlying health condition, such as a viral or bacterial infection.
  • How long do swollen tonsils last? Most of the time, tonsillitis clears up within 4 to 10 days. Chronic tonsillitis can persist for weeks or months.

Do You Need to See an ENT for Swollen Tonsils?

Just because your tonsils are swollen doesn’t mean that you need to schedule an appointment right away. Here are a few common indications that you need to talk to an ENT:

  • Timeline: If tonsillitis lasts for more than a few days, then it might be time to talk to a doctor about your symptoms.
  • Breathing: When the swelling of the tonsils interferes with breathing, then you should seek medical attention immediately.
  • Discomfort: When symptoms are severe or you are experiencing extreme discomfort.
  • Asymmetrical: When one tonsil is larger than the other, then it could be a sign of cancer or other health conditions.

If you are ready to visit with an ENT near Frisco or Plano, then we are here to help. Contact Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat to schedule an appointment in Frisco or Plano, TX. We offer a convenient online form, or you can request an appointment by calling: (972) 596-4005.

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