The tonsils are situated on either side of the throat. They are part of the lymphatic system and as such are an important part of the immune system. Their function is to fight infection at the upper end of the respiratory and digestive tracts.
Tonsillitis refers to inflammation of the tonsils and is usually caused by viral infections. Bacterial infections are less common, but do occur and are most commonly caused by the streptococcus. During an attack of tonsillitis, the throat feels very sore, swallowing is difficult and you can feel very unwell with all the symptoms associated with having a temperature. ie chills, sweats, aching joints and muscles and fatigue. The glands on either side of the neck are usually swollen and tender
Glandular fever (a viral infection) also causes tonsillitis.
Antibiotics are best avoided unless you are very unwell. This is because most attacks of tonsillitis are caused by viruses and antibiotics are not effective against viruses. There is some evidence that taking antibiotics, even for a bacterial tonsillitis, only reduces the duration of your symptoms by up to one day. However, there are times when antibiotics are useful and you should discuss the pros and cons with your medical advisor. Penicillin is the best treatment unless you are allergic to it when an alternative antibiotic will be prescribed. A drug called amoxicillin should not be taken for tonsillitis in case the cause of the tonsillitis is glandular fever. Amoxicillin taken during an attack of glandular fever can cause a nasty rash.
Tonsillectomy is performed less often these days. It is an operation not without its risks and the benefit may not be great. It may be indicated for those people who are getting recurrent tonsillitis, if the tonsils are chronically infected and sometimes after a complication such as quinsy (an abscess which forms adjacent to the tonsils). Doctors are now more mindful of the fact that the tonsils represent an important part of the immune defence system and should be preserved where possible.
This article published on
12 December 2005
Next review date 01/12/2013