Tonsillitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments
One of the most common oral infections, tonsillitis, can be easily treated. But it can be painful and is contagious too, so understanding the symptoms, causes, and potential treatments is very important.
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What is Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is defined as inflammation of the tonsils, which are a number of small groupings of lymphoid tissues in the throat and esophagus. When people refer to inflammation, they are typically referring to the palatine tonsils, which are two large clusters of lymphoid tissues at the back of the throat, and are visible when the mouth is opened. The other tonsils, which may also be infected or inflamed, are the tubal tonsils, lingual tonsils or adenoids.
This inflammation is typically caused by a viral infection, although certain bacterial strains can also cause the condition. When the Streptococcus A bacterial strain is the cause, the condition manifests as strep throat, an extremely common condition that affects 3-4% of the population each year. Roughly 2% of the population will experience tonsillitis each year. The most common demographic affected by tonsillitis are young children and adults going through puberty. At this point in their development, the tonsils are at their largest and seem to be most susceptible to infection. The function of these tonsils is primarily as an immunomodulator. These clusters of tissue are the body’s first line of defense against airborne pathogens but when they become infected, the symptoms are painful and must be addressed.
Symptoms of Tonsillitis
The most common symptoms of tonsillitis include a sore throat, stiff neck, fever, and headache. As the condition continues, there may be a white coating that forms on the surface of the tonsils, which will likely be swollen or inflamed. It will become painful to swallow food, as they will scrape by the inflamed tissues, and the glands in the throat will also swell up and become tender. The increased size of the tonsils may cause your voice to become muffled or scratchy.
In young children, who are particularly susceptible to this infection, common symptoms may be a refusal to eat anything, excessive fussiness, and an increase in drooling, due to the difficulty or pain of swallowing. This condition is commonly addressed by doctors, as parents take their children to the doctor at the appearance of these symptoms. Most cases of tonsillitis can be remedied within 7-10 days, but if strep throat goes untreated, more serious complications may arise.
However, it is only essential to visit a doctor if breathing becomes difficult or labored in any way by excessively inflamed tonsils. At this point, a more aggressive treatment protocol must be pursued. The tonsils are a part of the immune defenses of the body, but they are not essential, and can, therefore, be removed if necessary. Complete removal of the tonsils is particularly common when strep throat and tonsil infections occur more than once per year.
Causes of Tonsillitis
As mentioned above, tonsillitis is caused by a variety of bacterial and viral infections, such as the Epstein-Barr virus and the Streptococcus A bacterium. Aside from the infectious bacteria and viruses that cause this condition, there are also a few risk factors that increase your chances of contracting the infection, such as your age and your exposure to others who may be infected.
Age: Young people are particularly vulnerable to tonsillitis, as their immune system is still developing, and they are more prone to poor hygiene, such as putting their hands in their mouths without cleaning them. The prime age for tonsillitis in children is 5-15 years of age, but older people are also susceptible, as their immune systems may be weaker.
Exposure Level: This infection is easily passed through the air, so places with high concentrations of children or sick individuals will be breeding grounds for the pathogens that cause tonsillitis. As a teacher, parent of a young child or hospital worker, your risk of contracting this infection is high, so taking the proper precautions is essential.
Treatments for Tonsillitis
There are a limited number of treatments available for tonsillitis, but they include antibiotics, pain relievers and surgery.
The most common treatment for bacterial infections that cause strep throat and tonsillitis is antibiotics. Penicillin is the easiest and most readily available antibiotic and can be used for at least a week to quickly clear up the infection. However, repeated use of antibiotics for the treatment of this infection will lower their efficacy and may make you more vulnerable to future infections.
Since tonsillitis can cause severe swelling and pain in the throat while swallowing or eating, pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen are commonly recommended, particularly if the infection is mild or localized. Taking these medications is relatively harmless, provided you don’t have bleeding disorders (in the case of aspirin).
What most people think of when they hear the word tonsillitis is a tonsillectomy, which is the complete removal of the tonsils. A tonsillectomy is only required in cases of chronic tonsillitis (more than 6 times in a single year), when bacterial tonsillitis doesn’t respond to medication, or when severe tonsillitis impairs the ability to breathe or swallow food. The surgery is typically outpatient and is completely healed with 1 week.
Home Remedies for Tonsillitis
Given that tonsillitis is highly responsive to different lifestyle changes and natural solutions, many people avoid formal treatment and choose home remedies instead, such as resting, increasing fluid intake, humidifying the air, treating the symptoms, using lozenges, salt water gargles and simplifying the diet, along with the use of cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek, mint, slippery elm and figs.
The most basic remedy for tonsillitis is rest, meaning that you should speak as little as possible and avoid foods that may further irritate or inflame your tonsils. Physical rest will also reduce exertion in that part of the body, even through heavy breathing and movement of the neck; this will give your body the chance to heal itself, typically within 1-2 weeks.
Flushing out the underlying infection that is causing the tonsillitis infection is one result of increasing your water intake, but fluids will also help to keep the tonsils lubricated, which can reduce inflammation and make it easier for healing to occur.
Adding a humidifier to your bedroom will help to keep your tonsils and throat from drying out overnight, which can extend the length of the infection and promote more inflammation in the tonsils.
The high mucilage content in figs make them an ideal soothing food to eat while dealing with the pain and inflammation of tonsillitis. Packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, they are easy to swallow and digest, without irritating your tonsils.
The natural cooling and soothing properties of mint will help to reduce the inflammation in the tonsils and throat, helping to speed the process of recovery. Mint leaves can simply be chewed to release their powerful compounds, or you can brew mint tea 1-2 times per day for quick results.
This may be the most trusted and reliable remedy for tonsillitis, as the water can help to rapidly kill the bacteria or virus that is causing the inflammation. Mix 1 tablespoon of salt into a glass of warm water, stir thoroughly and then gargle for 30-45 seconds for rapid relief.
There are many different types of lozenges that can be sucked on to increase lubrication in the throat and provide numbing or analgesic effects to the tonsils, helping to normalize your day and cut down on pain while your body fights the infection.
Known as one of the most powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant spices, turmeric and its active ingredient, curcumin, is able to address the infection causing tonsillitis, while also stimulating the healing process for any damaged tissues and soothing the pain of your sore throat.
This herb is rich in mucilage, which can coat the throat and tonsils, helping to defend against inflammation and soothing pain, while also improving the immune system’s ability to seek out and neutralize the underlying infection.
In addition to treating the underlying infection, it can be helpful to treat the symptoms, such as a sore throat, headache, stiff joints and dry mouth. By eliminating these aggravating factors, you can help to speed the healing process and allow your immune system to focus on the bacterial or viral pathogens.
You should choose your foods carefully when you have tonsillitis, focusing on warm broths, ice cream, juice, tea, and honey, all of which can either numb or reduce inflammation on the tonsils.
The anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds present in fenugreek make it an ideal remedy for tonsillitis, helping to soothe the symptoms and address the underlying infections. Fenugreek can be eaten in a variety of foods, or it can be brewed into a relaxing tea that will reduce swelling in the tonsils.