The tonsils are lymph nodes that are located at the back of the throat. Their primary function is to combat infection causing bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the mouth. This very function is what makes tonsils so vulnerable to infection.
Most often, an infection is the result of a virus. Common viruses that result in tonsillitis (the medical term for a tonsil infection) include:
- The Influenza virus or flu virus.
- Parainfluenza viruses.
- Adenoviruses or Rhinovirus which also causes the common cold.
- Herpes Simplex Virus that often results in cold sores or fever blisters.
- Epstein-Barr Virus.
- Synctial Virus.
- Coronavirus more commonly known as the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus.
Bacterial causes of tonsillitis inlcude:
- Streptococcus Pyogenes which is the same bacteria that causes strep throat and is the most common bacterial cause of tonsil infection. Strep throat is often accompanied by tonsillitis and vise versa.
- Staphylococcus aureus is common cause of different types of infection in the body.
- Mycoplasma Pneumonia and Chlamydia Pneumonia which are common causes of upper and lower respiratory tract infections as well as pneumonia.
- Bordetella pertussis, Neisseria gonorrhoeae and Fusobacterium.
Whether an infection is viral or bacterial, the body is normally able to eliminate tonsillitis within a few days (normally the condition resolves on it’s own within 10 days). Although the condition is rarely serious, an infection can become severe or endure and may require treatment.
These aren’t necessarily the causes for all tonsil infections. For example, poor oral hygiene, smoking and not drinking enough water are what causes tonsil stones.
It is easier to treat and eliminate a bacterial infection with a course of antibiotics than it is to combat a viral infection. Antiviral medications as well as symptomatic treatment for pain and inflammation are often prescribed for the treatment of viral tonsillitis.
Home remedies such as gargling apple cider vinegar, chewing on garlic and drinking chamomile tea are good treatments for tonsil stones. They may not be as effective as medically prescribed medications but they are well worth taking.
Strengthening the body’s own immune system can go a long way towards preventing tonsil stones and tonsillitis. Antibacterial mouthwash, sprays or lozenges can also help reduce the likelihood of contracting tonsillitis as well as assisting in recovery.
The condition may also be caused by a secondary infection such as sinusitis or rhinitis which results in the tonsils becoming inflamed and sensitive to infection. Allergies like hay fever can also irritate the tonsils making them more prone to infection.
Tonsillitis resulting from a virus or bacteria is highly contagious. This means that it is transmittable from one person to another and this is the most likely way that tonsillitis is spread.
In severe cases or where infection is recurring, removal of the tonsils may be recommended. This procedure is called a tonsillectomy and is normally performed after 7 cases of tonsillitis. Due to strep throat being such a common side effect or cause of tonsil infections, 5 cases may also be sufficient cause for a tonsillectomy.
It is important to note that although tonsils are the first line of defense against bacteria and viruses entering the body, they are not entirely necessary. Therefore, when tonsils get infected regularly or severely, it is often considered to be of greater benefit to have them removed.
One of the primary risks of a tonsillectomy is extreme bleeding. Inflammation and infection of the tonsils increases this risk. It is therefore often necessary to undergo treatment to eliminate an infection before a tonsillectomy can be performed. Most often, healthy tonsils are removed through surgery, cauterization, laser removal or sound waves.
Recurring tonsil stones or tonsillitis can cause strain on the immune system. An extreme infection can result in difficulty swallowing and breathing. These are definitive indicators that the tonsils need to be removed.
In rare cases, one extreme infection may be reason enough to have the tonsils removed as soon as possible. It is important to visit a doctor for recurring tonsil infections or where tonsillitis does not resolve on its own within a few days.