Causes of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is usually caused by viruses like the common cold, flu or glandular fever.

Sometimes a bacterial infection can cause tonsillitis, but it’s often hard to tell the difference between viral and bacterial causes.

Bacterial causes include streptococcal infection (Streptococcus A). If left untreated, this kind of infection can cause complications such as scarlet fever, middle ear infections and, occasionally, rheumatic fever.

Children under three years don’t often get bacterial tonsillitis.

The tonsils are two pieces of tissue at the back of the mouth. You can often see them if your child ‘opens wide’ and you look into his mouth. The tonsils work as part of the immune system.

Tonsillitis symptoms

If your child has tonsillitis, she’ll complain of a sore throat and sometimes of difficulty in swallowing. Your child might have a fever or swollen, tender glands in her neck. Your child might also say she has a headache. And she might have a runny nose and many of the symptoms of a cold.

Depending on the cause of the infection, your child could also have a rash.

Tonsillitis symptoms usually improve after a few days and go away within a week.

When to see a doctor about tonsillitis

You should take your child to see a GP if your child:

  • refuses to drink fluids
  • vomits
  • complains of an intense headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • has trouble breathing or swallowing his saliva.

If you’re worried about your child’s symptoms, also see a GP.

Tests for tonsillitis

Your GP might order a throat swab to check whether a virus or bacteria is causing the infection.

The GP might also suggest a blood test, which can help look for glandular fever.

Tonsillitis treatment

If the infection is caused by a virus, your child won’t need antibiotics.

Your GP will prescribe antibiotics only if the GP thinks the infection is caused by bacteria. The GP will do a throat swab to check this.

You can treat your child’s symptoms by giving your child small, frequent sips of water. This helps your child stay hydrated. Paracetamol in recommended doses can help with the pain.

Sometimes your GP might suggest a short course of steroids for the pain.

Tonsillectomy is when you have your tonsils taken out. This isn’t a routine operation, unless your child has tonsillitis that keeps coming back. If your doctor feels your child might benefit from tonsillectomy, the doctor will send you and your child to an ear, nose and throat specialist.