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Tonsillitis is the medical condition when the tonsils in the back of the throat become inflamed. This usually means they are swollen, red and tender. The tonsils are pieces of tissue located in the back of your throat responsible for trapping germs and keeping them from entering your airways. They contain antibodies that help fight infection. Many people visit their doctor when it becomes too painful to swallow, therefore indicating a possible problem. Since it is a case of inflammation, tonsillitis is usually caused by infections. It is most common in children, but can affect anyone.

Causes, Risk Factors and Complications

Most cases of tonsillitis are caused by viruses or infections. The most common cause is the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. This is the same bacteria known to cause strep throat. The strep bacteria are responsible for about 30 percent of tonsillitis in children, and 10 percent of tonsillitis in adults. Other types of viruses that can cause tonsillitis are the adenovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, influenza virus, Parainfluenza virus, herpes simplex virus, and enteroviruses. The tonsils are particularly vulnerable to bacterial infections, such as strep, because they capture the germs entering the mouth and throat.

Tonsillitis is more common in children, therefore making children from age 3 to 15, the biggest risk factor for this health condition. Children and adults who are exposed to germs on a regular basis are also at risk for tonsillitis.

Without proper treatment for tonsillitis, it can cause moderate to severe complications. This includes tonsils swelling and blocking the airway, problems breathing, Rheumatic fever, Peritonsillar abscesses in the throat, dehydration, infections in the tissue around the tonsils, obstructive sleep apnea at night and pus behind the tonsils called tonsillar abscess.

Signs, Symptoms and Tests

Most adults and children with tonsillitis will experience swollen tonsils, tonsils that appear red and inflamed, tenderness in the lymph nodes and throat, difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing, white or yellow patches on the tonsils or in the throat, fever, swollen lymph nodes, stiff neck, scratchy voice, stomach pain in children, bad breath and headaches. The lesser common signs and symptoms include: blisters on the throat, loss of appetite, pain in the ear, jaw tenderness, and vomiting.

To diagnose tonsillitis, there are a few tests. They include a physical examination to look at the tonsils. The doctor will look for red and swollen tonsils, and patching that is white or yellow. They will listen to the persons breathing with a stethoscope and order tests to look for the strep infection. A throat swab is commonly performed, which involves a sample of secretions in the back of the throat. It is tested in the lab to look for the streptococcal bacteria. If the test to look for strep is negative, doctors may order a complete blood cell count (CBC) test.

Treatment, Drugs and Prevention

The cause of the tonsillitis will determine the best course of treatment. If it was caused by a virus, antibiotics wont do much good. However, if it was caused by the strep infection, penicillin is most commonly prescribed. This is given either as a single-dose shot or oral antibiotics. If abscesses have formed because of the tonsillitis, they may need to be drained using needle aspiration. Some of the side effects of tonsillitis can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Gargling with warm salt water can help reduce the pain felt in the throat. To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of clear liquids. Pain can also be reduced with lozenges, but should not be given to younger children who may choke on them.

Surgery is only required in severe cases, or when a child or adult is getting the tonsillitis infection repeatedly. This surgery is called a tonsillectomy. It will remove the tonsils in order to prevent further infections and inflammations of the tonsils. It is a very common procedure.

Since tonsillitis is caused by viruses and bacteria, the key to preventing it is by stopping the spread of bacteria. You can do this by washing your hands regularly with soap and water. If you cant access soap and water, use an antibacterial soap. Children should always avoid sharing drinking glasses, utensils or food with other children. Preventing contact with someone else who has the strep infection for at least 24 hours after they start their round of antibiotics, is also recommended.