What is tonsillitis in adults?

Understanding Tonsillitis in Adults

If you are experiencing a sore throat and difficulty swallowing, you might have tonsillitis. Tonsillitis is a common condition that affects both children and adults alike. In this article, we’ll discuss what tonsillitis is, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention methods for adults.

What Is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is a condition in which the tonsils become inflamed, swollen, and red due to an infection. Tonsils are two small glands located at the back of the throat, which help to combat infections. When tonsils become infected, the resulting inflammation can cause sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and fever, amongst other symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Tonsillitis in Adults?

1. Sore Throat

A sore throat is one of the most common symptoms of tonsillitis in adults, and it may be severe enough to make speaking or swallowing painful.

2. Bad Breath

Bad breath can occur when bacteria begin to grow inside the mouth and throat due to the infection responsible for causing tonsillitis.

3. Pain in the Ear

As the tonsils are located close to the ears, infected tonsils can cause ear pain in some individuals.

4. Swollen Tonsils

Swollen tonsils are one of the most apparent symptoms of tonsillitis. The tonsils will appear larger than usual and may have red or white spots on them.

5. Difficulty Swallowing

Inflammation of the tonsils can cause difficulty or pain when swallowing, making it challenging to eat or drink.

6. Fever

Many people with tonsillitis will develop a fever as the body attempts to fight off the infection. This is usually accompanied by chills, sweats, and muscle aches.

What Causes Tonsillitis in Adults?

Tonsillitis in adults is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Common viruses that cause the condition include the flu or the cold, while group A streptococcus bacteria are the most common type of bacteria responsible for tonsillitis. Other viruses and bacteria that can cause tonsillitis include Epstein-Barr virus, adenoviruses, and herpes simplex virus.

Diagnosis of Tonsillitis in Adults

Diagnosis of tonsillitis usually requires a physical examination and a throat culture. Your doctor will examine your throat, tonsils, and lymph nodes in the neck area for signs of infection. They may also use a swab to take a sample of the tonsil tissue for laboratory testing to determine the type of infection causing the inflammation. Blood tests may also be used to confirm a diagnosis of bacterial tonsillitis.

Treatment for Tonsillitis

The treatment approach for tonsillitis in adults depends on the underlying cause of the condition. Viral tonsillitis usually resolves on its own, and the focus is on symptom management. This may involve taking over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories and drinking plenty of fluids to keep the throat well-hydrated.

If the cause of your tonsillitis is a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics. It is essential to finish the full course of antibiotics, even if the symptoms improve, to reduce the risk of the bacteria causing recurrent infections.

In severe cases where tonsillitis leads to the formation of abscesses in the tonsils, surgical intervention may be necessary. This involves a tonsillectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the tonsils.

Preventing Tonsillitis in Adults

Preventing tonsillitis in adults involves taking steps to boost the immune system and reduce the risk of infection. Simple prevention methods include washing hands frequently, avoiding sharing drinks and utensils, and not smoking. Mouth-breathing can cause the throat to dry out, which can increase the risk of developing tonsillitis, so keeping the mouth hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids can reduce the risk of this condition.

FAQs About Tonsillitis in Adults

  • Can tonsillitis be contagious?
    Yes, tonsillitis can be contagious, and it can spread from person to person through direct contact with saliva, sneezing, and coughing.
  • Who is at risk of developing tonsillitis?
    Anyone can develop tonsillitis, but it is most common in children and teenagers. People with weak immune systems, such as those with HIV, are also at increased risk.
  • How long does tonsillitis last in adults?
    The duration of tonsillitis in adults depends on the underlying cause of the condition. Viral tonsillitis can last up to a week or two, while bacterial tonsillitis typically lasts longer.
  • Is surgery the only treatment for tonsillitis?
    No, surgery is not the only treatment for tonsillitis. Mild cases can be treated with over-the-counter remedies, while bacterial infections require antibiotics.
  • What complications can arise from tonsillitis?
    Complications of tonsillitis in adults can include abscesses forming on the tonsils, the spread of infection to other parts of the body, and renal damage in rare cases.


1. National Health Services UK (2019) Tonsillitis in adults [online] available from <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tonsillitis-in-adults/> [15th September 2021]

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021) Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease [online] available from <https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/index.html> [15th September 2021]

3. WebMD (2021) Tonsillitis in adults [online] available from <https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/tonsillitis-symptoms-causes-treatments> [15th September 2021]