tonsillitis symptoms

Tonsillitis symptoms can be hard to detect.

June 30, 2017 by Dr. John Howard II, MD

When you've got a sore throat, it is important to understand what's going on with your body, and when it's best to see a doctor.

While tonsillitis is most common in kids, anyone can get it.

Keep reading to understand what tonsillitis is, the stages of tonsillitis, and what you should do if you think you have it.

What Is Tonsillitis?

Tonsils are a part of your immune system and act as a sort of trap for foreign substances in your body, like bacteria, viruses, and allergens.

Tonsillitis is the inflammation of your tonsils.

What Causes Tonsillitis?

As mentioned earlier, tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils. But why do they get inflamed?

This can happen when there is a foreign substance in your body: your tonsils will trap the offender and become inflamed.

The majority of the time, tonsillitis is caused by a viral infection, but it can also be caused by a bacterial infection and even allergies.

You can get tonsillitis when the infection spreads person-to-person, whether that is through touching shared surfaces, close contact, kissing, or inhaling airborne particles.

Symptoms of Tonsillitis

What can this inflammation cause?

While the most common, and often the most noticed, symptom is a sore throat, there are a myriad of other symptoms you may experience.

These include:

  • Red, inflamed tonsils, potentially with white spots on them
  • A sore throat, often severe, which can cause difficulty swallowing or eating
  • Ear pain
  • Losing your voice
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck and/or jaw
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loud breathing and/or snoring
  • Fatigue

Stages of Tonsillitis

Obviously, none of these symptoms sound pleasant.

The good news is, tonsillitis is usually short lived and often is deemed a self-limiting condition meaning that it will clear up on its own.

These are the stages of tonsillitis you can expect:

  1. Infection. The first stage involves becoming infected with a virus, bacteria, or allergen. Your immune system will react to the foreign substance.
  2. Symptoms Develop. Because of the immune reaction, your tonsils will become inflamed, resulting in tonsillitis. Other symptoms listed above may occur.
  3. Contagious. Depending on what is causing the tonsillitis, you could be contagious. While you are sick and having symptoms, you may be able to spread the infection to others.
  4. Dissipation of Symptoms. Symptoms usually resolve after 3-4 days, but they can last for 1-2 weeks.


The stages of tonsillitis are often quick, and it will often resolve itself without any treatment.

If you decide to let it take its course, there are a couple of things you can do to lessen your pain and help ease your symptoms.

Home Treatments

  • Eat soft foods. You'll need to eat even if it hurts to swallow your food. Having soft foods, like smoothies or applesauce, can make eating easier.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Drinking cold beverages can ease your throat pain and help prevent dehydration.
  • Rest. It's important to rest your body as it fights off the infection. Besides helping your immune system, resting can alleviate any fatigue you are feeling as well.
  • Take Ibuprofen. Ibuprofen can help lessen inflammation, reduce your fever, as well as provide you with some pain relief.
  • Gargle salt water. Mix half a teaspoon of salt with some warm water and gargle it. This can soothe your sore throat.
  • Get some over the counter throat lozenges or sprays. Sucking on some throat lozenges can also ease the pain from your sore throat.

Consult Your Doctor

If your symptoms last longer than a few days or are extremely severe, you should go see a doctor. They can take a throat swab or a blood test to see what might be causing your tonsillitis.

If they conclude it is a viral infection, you'll unfortunately just have to wait it out: viruses don't respond to antibiotics.

In fact, most cases of tonsillitis are caused by a virus, so you'll likely just have to wait for the infection to pass. But if the throat swab shows that you have a bacterial infection, the doctor could prescribe you antibiotics.

However, this is often the last resort, as tonsillitis will usually clear up on its own, and the overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance.

If you're prescribed antibiotics, they should clear it up quickly. You could experience some side effects including upset stomach, soft stool, diarrhea, and/or rash.


While tonsillectomies (the surgical removal of your tonsils) are less common today than they used to be, it is still an option in a number of situations.

If you have had frequent bouts of tonsillitis, have bacterial tonsillitis that is resistant to antibiotics, or if you are allergic to antibiotics, you might have to have your tonsils removed.

Of course, surgery always comes with some risks, and the recovery would result in throat pain, difficulty eating, and last 2-3 weeks.


When it comes to infections, often the best advice is to take steps to avoid becoming infected in the first place.

If you are already infected, you should also follow these preventative steps in order to prevent spreading your illness to others.

Wash your hands. Washing and drying your hands frequently and thoroughly will help prevent the spread of tonsillitis causing germs.

Stay away from infected people. Keep your distance from those who are sick, as they could spread the infection to you through contact or even just through the air.

If you are the infected one, be conscious of others who you could potentially infect.

Don't share food or drink. Sharing food or drink could spread germs. This means no sharing of food, eating utensils, drinking bottles, liquids, plates, etc.

Clean common surfaces. Someone with tonsillitis could spread the germs to surfaces like counters, toilets, doorknobs, etc.

Combat this by cleaning these places frequently.

Testing and Treatment at Hampton Roads ENT - Allergy

ENT Doctor Gloucester, VA

Tonsillitis is pretty common and often will clear up on its own. But it's still important to understand the stages of tonsillitis and your treatment options.

Hampton Roads ENT - Allergy has a roster of professional providers and specialists can help you pinpoint your problems.

Click Here to set an appointment with one of our providers.

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About The Author
Dr. John L. Howard II MD

Dr. John Howard II, MD

Dr. John Howard II, MD is an otolaryngologist with Hampton Roads ENT - Allergy in both Gloucester, VA & Williamsburg, VA.  

I particularly enjoy treating pediatric patients as well as helping those with nasal and sinus issues.  Some of my most rewarding work has been helping those facing the challenge of a new cancer diagnosis.  As your doctor, I will work with you to understand your ENT concerns and to develop a personalized treatment plan.