Tonsils and Adenoids, Parent's Perspective

Your child is in preschool and brings home the dreaded note from her teacher: "Your child has been exposed to tonsillitis." It is 5:30 PM, your doctor's office is closed, and panic sets in. What is tonsillitis? Does it have something to do with her tonsils? Does it have something to do with strep throat? Is some treatment needed tonight, even though my child seems fine? Why didn't we discuss this with our doctor at her last well checkup? These and many other questions will be posed and answered in this article on Tonsils and Adenoids .

What are tonsils and adenoids?

The tonsils can be seen at the back and to the sides of the throat. They are reddish, oval-shaped lumps of tissue, and are located on both sides of the uvula (the little piece of tissue that hangs straight down in the back of the throat in the midline). When the tonsils become inflamed, the condition is called tonsillitis. The adenoids cannot be seen directly, as they sit in the space above the uvula. The tonsils and adenoids have often been felt to be involved in the immune system, but their exact role has not been determined.

It is common for youngsters under age six or so to have "large" tonsils and adenoids, possibly because of their greater number of exposures to germs from other children or from allergies. When the tonsils and adenoids are infected, they become very swollen and red and can cause problems with swallowing and/or breathing.

How can you detect infection of the tonsils and adenoids?

Since the tonsils are visible at the back of the throat, just ask the child to relax the tongue and take a deep breath. This causes the tongue to drop down and the palate to rise which makes the tonsils visible even without the dreaded tongue-blade. Get to know your child's normal, uninfected tonsils, since, as mentioned, they can be rather large in the "normal" state. Infected tonsils will be larger and redder than normal. Also, her voice may change, taking on a thick sound as if she is "talking around" something. Adenoids cannot be seen directly, but require special mirrors or scopes, or even x-rays to detect. When these are enlarged, patients often complain about trouble breathing through the nose (creating the well-known mouth-breathing phenomenon) or difficulty smelling things.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/1/2014