Health conditions

Tonsillitis

What is tonsillitis?

The tonsils are small glands at the back of the throat.

There are three main types of tonsillitis:

  • acute tonsillitis can either be caused by bacteria or a virus
  • sub-acute tonsillitis is caused by bacteria
  • chronic tonsillitis which can last for long periods if not treated, is almost always bacterial. 

  • Antibiotics are used in bacterial tonsillitis, which only accounts for 15 per cent of cases.

    How can tonsillitis be prevented?

    It is difficult to stop the spread of the germs that cause tonsillitis but the following may help if you:

    • wash your hands frequently
    • use separate cutlery and crockery
    • keep contact with others down to a minimum.

    At home you can:

    • rest if you feel unwell
    • drink plenty of fluid
    • suck icy poles or ice cubes to help reduce the pain
    • use pain relief as directed
    • try to gargle or wash the mouth with warm salty water – spitting the fluid out, not swallowing it
    • try throat lozenges for pain relief
    • eat when you feel like it, trying a soft diet first.

    Do not:

    • expose other people to your infection
    • smoke cigarettes
    • drink alcohol whilst taking medications.

    What you can expect

    If the cause of the infection is thought to be bacterial then you will be given antibiotics which you must complete. 

    If the cause is viral then antibiotics will not be prescribed, as they are ineffective against viral infections. Usually viral infections clear up on their own. Complications from tonsillitis are uncommon. However, sometimes an abscess can form on the tonsils and this will require further treatment. 

    If you frequently get tonsillitis you may need to talk to your GP regarding a referral to a specialist.

    See your family GP or go to the emergency department if you develop any of the following

    • have a severe headache or stiff neck
    • have a fever that lasts longer than two to three days and is unrelieved by painkillers
    • inability to swallow fluids or are vomiting.

    Go to the emergency department immediately if you have trouble breathing, feel short of breath or unable to swallow your own saliva.

    Where to get help

    • See your doctor
    • Visit a GP after hours
    • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

    This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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