Tonsillitis and Adenoid Infection

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Treating a Sore Throat

Tonsillitis and adenoid infection definition and facts

  • Tonsils and adenoids are composed of tissues similar to the lymph nodes or glands.
  • Acute tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils caused by one of several types of bacteria or viruses.
  • Chronic tonsillitis is a persistent infection of the tonsils and can cause tonsil stone formation.
  • Signs and symptoms of tonsil or adenoid infection include:
  • Peritonsillar abscess is a collection of pus behind the tonsils.
  • Obstruction to breathing by enlarged tonsils and adenoids may cause snoring and disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Bacterial infections of the tonsils and adenoids are treated with antibiotics, viral infections are not.
  • Tonsillitis and adenoid infections are diagnosed with a history and physical exam. A throat culture and rapid strep test may be ordered in cases of tonsillitis suspected to be bacterial.
  • Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy (surgical removal of the tonsils) may be recommended: (1) for repeated or persistent infections; (2) when serious complications of infection occur; and (3) when enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids causes breathing, swallowing, or dental problems.

What are the tonsils and adenoids?

The tonsils and adenoids are composed of tissues similar to the lymph nodes or glands found in the neck or other parts of the body. Together, they are part of a ring of glandular tissue (Waldeyer's ring) encircling the back of the throat.

The tonsils are the two masses of tissue on either side of the back of the throat. Normal tonsils are usually about the same size and have the same pink color as the surrounding area. On their surfaces are little depressions, called crypts, which may appear deep and contain pus pockets or tonsil stones.

The adenoids are located high in the throat behind the nose and soft palate (the roof of the mouth) and unlike the tonsils, are not easily visible through the mouth. A tonsillectomy and an adenoidectomy (commonly referred to as a T & A) are surgical procedures performed to remove the tonsils and adenoids.

What is the purpose of the tonsils and adenoids?

The tonsils and adenoids are thought to assist the body in its defense against incoming bacteria and viruses by helping the body form antibodies. However, this function may only be important during the first year of life. There is no evidence to support a significant role of the tonsils and adenoids in immunity. Medical studies have shown that children who have their tonsils and adenoids removed suffer no loss in their future immunity to disease or ability to ward off infections.

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Is Tonsillitis Contagious?

Most acute tonsil infections are caused by viruses or bacteria, and usually are contagious (transmitted) by direct person-to-person contact.

  • Tonsillitis caused by a virus infection usually is contagious for about 7-10 days.
  • Bacterial tonsillitis can remain contagious for about two weeks.
  • Tonsillitis caused by bacteria and with treated antibiotics are considered non-contagious after approximately 24-48 hours antibiotic therapy.

What are the signs and symptoms of tonsillitis or an adenoid infection?

The most prominent symptom of tonsillitis and adenoid infection is a sore throat. Other signs and symptoms of tonsillitis and adenoid infection include:

When there is a sore throat and cold symptoms such as congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and coughing, the cause is most likely a virus. Viral infection of the tonsils or adenoids usually resolves without treatment within two weeks.

Sore throat with a sudden mild fever, without symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection, may point to a bacterial infection. If these symptoms are present, see a doctor for diagnosis because of the risk of strep throat. Although strep throat will usually go away even without treatment, an untreated strep infection can lead to complications including rheumatic fever, which can permanently damage the heart.

What does tonsillitis look like (pictures)?

Picture of bacterial and viral tonsillitis
Picture of bacterial and viral tonsillitis

Is tonsillitis contagious?

Tonsillitis may or may not be contagious, depending on the cause. If the cause is viral, it is usually contagious, but this depends upon whether or not a person has been exposed to that particular virus before. Mononucleosis, a viral cause of sore throat, is contagious the first time a person is exposed to the virus, usually in childhood or adolescence.

If the cause of the tonsillitis is bacterial, it is also contagious. For example, strep throat is highly contagious.

If the tonsillitis and enlarged adenoids are chronic or caused by a chronic condition, such as sinusitis, hay fever or chronic rhinitis, it likely is not contagious.

What are common causes tonsillitis and adenoid infection?

The most common problems occurring with the tonsils and adenoids are

  • acute,
  • recurrent, or
  • chronic infections and significant enlargement (hypertrophy).

Acute tonsillitis

Acute tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils caused by one of several possible types of bacteria or viruses. Symptoms of acute tonsillitis can either come on suddenly, or be of a gradual onset of a sore throat usually accompanied by a fever.

Other signs and symptoms of acute tonsillitis include:

  • Difficulty swallowing saliva
  • Drooling
  • Ear pain with swallowing
  • Bad breath
  • Tonsil surface may be bright red or have a grayish-white coating (exudate).
  • Lymph nodes in the neck may be swollen.
  • Fever

Strep throat is a specific type of infection caused by the Streptococcus bacteria. Strep tonsillitis can cause secondary damage to the heart valves (rheumatic fever) and kidneys (glomerulonephritis). It can also lead to a skin rash (for example, scarlet fever), sinusitis, pneumonia, and ear infections.

Acute mononucleosis is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, and can lead to a very severe throat infection characterized by the rapid enlargement of the tonsils, adenoids, and lymph nodes of the neck. It also causes extreme malaise and tiredness. The sore throat and gland swelling can last for one week to a month and does not respond to the usually prescribed antibiotics.

Chronic tonsillitis

Chronic tonsillitis is a persistent infection of the tonsils. Repeated infections may cause the formation of small pockets (crypts) in the tonsils which harbor bacteria. Frequently, small, foul smelling stones are found within these crypts. These stones (tonsilloliths) may contain high quantities of sulfa. When crushed, they give off the characteristic rotten egg smell which causes bad breath. They may also give a patient the sense of something being caught in the back of the throat.

Peritonsillar abscess

A peritonsillar abscess is a collection of pus around the tonsils that pushes one of the tonsils toward the uvula (the prominent soft tissue dangling from the back of the upper throat). It is generally very painful and is associated with decreased ability to open the mouth. If left untreated, the infection can spread deep in the neck causing life-threatening complications and airway obstruction.

Enlargement of (hypertrophic) tonsils and adenoids

Obstruction to breathing by enlarged tonsils and adenoids may cause snoring and disturbed sleep patterns that may lead to sleep pauses or sleep apnea.

Other signs and symptoms include:

Some orthodontists believe chronic mouth breathing from large tonsils and adenoids causes improper alignment of the teeth (malocclusion).

Chronic enlargement and infection of the adenoids may lead to infection of the air passages around the nose (sinusitis) or nasal drainage/obstruction, and/or may affect the Eustachian tube of the ears, leading to chronic ear infections.

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Which specialties of doctors treat tonsillitis and adenoid infections?

A primary care provider (PCP) such as a family practitioner, an internist, or a child's pediatrician may diagnose and treat simple tonsillitis and adenoid infections. If your tonsillitis is severe enough that you go to an emergency department, you will be seen by an emergency medicine specialist. If infections are severe, chronic, or recurrent, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist, also called an ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist for further treatment or surgical removal of the tonsils and/or adenoids.

How are tonsillitis and adenoid infection diagnosed?

Diagnosis of tonsillitis and adenoid infection is based on a medical history and a physical exam.

If symptoms suggest strep throat, the doctor may order a throat culture or rapid strep test, which are done by swabbing the back of the throat and checking for the Streptococcus bacteria. This can be performed in the doctor's office. If the Epstein-Barr virus, which can cause mononucleosis, is suspected as a cause for the tonsillitis, a blood test for mononucleosis may be done.

Strep throat is more likely if at least three of the following signs or symptoms are present:

  • Fever
  • White or yellow spots or coating on the throat and/or tonsils (tonsillar exudates)
  • Red spots on the roof of the mouth (upper palette)
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes on the neck
  • Absence of coughing or sneezing

Antibiotic treatment may be needed if the infection is caused by bacteria. In more severe, recurrent or chronic cases, surgery to remove the tonsils or adenoids (tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy) may be recommended to cure the condition.

What is the treatment for tonsillitis and adenoid infection?

Bacterial infections of the tonsils and adenoids are treated with various antibiotics. Tonsillitis caused by the Streptococcus bacteria can lead to serious complications. Once treatment begins, it is important to take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed because if you stop taking the drugs before they are finished it can lead to adverse consequences and regrowth of the bacteria. Surgical removal is considered in situations resistant to medical therapy or in frequently recurrent infections.

Viral causes of tonsillitis or enlarged adenoids are often treated with only supportive care (hydration and control of fever). Antibiotics are not effective for viral infection of the tonsils.

A peritonsillar abscess should be drained either by removal of fluid with a needle and syringe (needle aspiration), cutting open with a scalpel (incision), or tonsillectomy. Chronic stones in the tonsil can be removed with a clean finger or with a blunt probe. Massive enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids causing airway obstruction may be treated with a long course of antibiotics, or even a brief course of steroids to reduce inflammation (cortisone-related medications, such as prednisone and prednisolone).

What natural or home remedies help soothe tonsillitis pain and inflammation?

If a doctor has diagnosed tonsillitis, there are some home remedies that can help soothe the symptoms of a sore throat.

  1. Throat sprays and lozenges: these can coat and moisturize the throat, and many have a topical anesthetic to relieve pain (consult a doctor before giving lozenges to young children; they can be a choking hazard)
  2. Saltwater gargle: this helps clear mucus from the throat
  3. Sipping warm beverages such as tea with honey, or broth can be soothing
  4. Eating cold foods such as ice cream or popsicles can help ease pain

Some alternative remedies may help ease tonsillitis symptoms.

  1. Slippery elm in lozenge form may help with pain relief
  2. Serrapeptase is an enzyme that has anti-inflammatory properties and can help decrease pain and help with swallowing
  3. Papain is an enzyme that can help treat inflammation
  4. Andrographis can help treat fever and sore throat symptoms

Consult your doctor before using any alternative remedies. Many of these home remedies are not recommended for use in children or adolescents, most have not been scientifically evaluated.

When should the tonsils and/or adenoids be removed (tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy)?

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are indicated in persons with repeated or persistent infections, particularly if they interfere with everyday activities. The American Academy of Otolaryngology defines repeated infections in children as seven episodes in one year, or five episodes in each of two years, or three episodes in each of three years.

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are also warranted in situations where there is enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids to such an extent that it causes severe sleep problems (snoring and breath holding), sleep apnea, dental abnormalities, and difficulty swallowing. Adenoid enlargement alone, or in combination with tonsillar enlargement, can cause nasal obstruction, recurrent ear infections, or sinusitis. If these conditions are resistant to medical therapy, surgery is indicated to cure them.

A significant episode of tonsillitis is defined by one or more of the following criteria: (1) a temperature greater than 101 F (38.3 C); (2) enlarged or tender neck lymph nodes; (3) pus material coating the tonsils; or (4) a positive strep test.

In adults, the severity, frequency, and hardship associated with repeated infections are considered more important than the absolute number. Chronic infections characterized by bad breath and/or tonsillar stones causing significant disability are also indicators for tonsillectomy.

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are strongly considered in those patients who are suffering, or may suffer serious complications of infection. These include peritonsillar abscess, history of streptococcal complications (rheumatic heart disease, glomerulonephritis), or neck abscess. Suspicion of cancer (malignancy) or tumor is a definite reason for surgery.

It should be emphasized that all decisions for or against removing the tonsils or adenoids are dependent upon the individual patient's particular situation. Additional factors, such as tolerance of antibiotics, concurrent medical problems, school achievement/progress, and family preferences are also important factors in the decision process.

REFERENCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. "Tonsils and Adenoids."
<http://www.entnet.org/content/tonsils-and-adenoids>

American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Tonsillitis. January 2011.
<http://www.entnet.org/content/tonsillitis>

Drutz, J, MD. "Sore throat in children and adolescents: Symptomatic treatment." UpToDate. Updated: Dec 07, 2015.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/sore-throat-in-children-and-adolescents-symptomatic-treatment>

Paradise, J.L., MD. et al. "Tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy in children: Indications and contraindications." Updated: Aug 18, 2016.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/tonsillectomy-and-or-adenoidectomy-in-children-indications-and-contraindications?>

Last Editorial Review: 9/15/2016

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Reviewed on 9/15/2016
References
REFERENCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. "Tonsils and Adenoids."
<http://www.entnet.org/content/tonsils-and-adenoids>

American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Tonsillitis. January 2011.
<http://www.entnet.org/content/tonsillitis>

Drutz, J, MD. "Sore throat in children and adolescents: Symptomatic treatment." UpToDate. Updated: Dec 07, 2015.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/sore-throat-in-children-and-adolescents-symptomatic-treatment>

Paradise, J.L., MD. et al. "Tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy in children: Indications and contraindications." Updated: Aug 18, 2016.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/tonsillectomy-and-or-adenoidectomy-in-children-indications-and-contraindications?>

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