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Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils at the back of your throat. It is a common childhood illness, but teenagers and adults can get it too.

Check if you have tonsillitis

Tonsillitis can feel like a bad cold or flu. The tonsils at the back of your throat will be red and swollen.

The main symptoms in children and adults are:

  • a sore throat
  • problems swallowing
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • coughing
  • a headache
  • feeling sick
  • earache
  • feeling tired

Sometimes the symptoms can be more severe and include:

  • swollen, painful glands in your neck (feels like a lump on the side of your neck)
  • white pus-filled spots on your tonsils
  • bad breath
What tonsils with pus-filled spots can look like
Pus-filled spots on tonsils in the back of the mouth.
Tonsils with pus-filled spots at the back of the throat.

If you're not sure it's tonsillitis

Look at other sore throat symptoms.

How long tonsillitis lasts

Symptoms will usually go away after 3 to 4 days.

Tonsillitis is not contagious, but most of the infections that cause it are, for example, colds and flu.

To stop these infections spreading:

  • stay off work or keep your child at home until you or your child feel better
  • use tissues when you cough or sneeze and throw them away
  • wash your hands after coughing or sneezing

How to treat tonsillitis yourself

Tonsillitis usually gets better on its own after a few days.

To help treat the symptoms:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink cool drinks to soothe the throat
  • take paracetamol or ibuprofen (do not give aspirin to children under 16)
  • gargle with warm salty water (children should not try this)
How to gargle with salty water
  1. Mix half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and stir until it has dissolved.
  2. Gargle with the salty water (do not swallow it), then spit it out.
  3. Repeat as often as you like.

Young children should not gargle with salty water.

A pharmacist can help with tonsillitis

Speak to a pharmacist about tonsillitis.

They can give advice and suggest treatments, like:

  • lozenges
  • throat sprays
  • antiseptic solutions

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • you have white pus-filled spots on your tonsils
  • the sore throat is so painful it's difficult to eat or drink
  • the symptoms do not go away within 4 days
Information:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: how to contact a GP

It's still important to get help from a GP if you need it. To contact your GP surgery:

  • visit their website
  • use the NHS App
  • call them

Find out about using the NHS during COVID-19

What happens at a GP appointment

A doctor can usually tell it's tonsillitis by asking about your symptoms and looking at the back of your throat.

You may also need:

  • a swab test to see if bacteria are causing your tonsillitis (a cotton bud is used to wipe the back of your throat)
  • a blood test for glandular fever if symptoms are severe or will not go away

You should get any test results back within 2 or 3 days.

Treatment from a GP

Treatment will depend on what caused your tonsillitis:

  • most children and adults get viral tonsillitis (caused by a virus), which clears up on its own
  • for bacterial tonsillitis (caused by bacteria), a GP may prescribe antibiotics

A GP will usually wait for the test results to tell which type you have.

Surgery to remove your tonsils

It's very rare that someone needs to have their tonsils taken out.

This is usually only the case if you have severe tonsillitis that keeps coming back.

Causes of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus, such as a cold, but it can also be due to a bacterial infection such as strep throat.

Complications with tonsillitis (quinsy)

Complications with tonsillitis are very rare.

Sometimes you can get a pocket filled with pus (abscess) between your tonsils and the wall of your throat. This is called quinsy.

Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if you have:

  • a severe sore throat that quickly gets worse
  • swelling inside the mouth and throat
  • difficulty speaking
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty opening your mouth

These are signs of quinsy.

Page last reviewed: 10 February 2021
Next review due: 10 February 2024