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Tonsils are the two lymph nodes located on each side of the back of your throat. They function as a defense mechanism. They help prevent your body from infection. When the tonsils become infected, the condition is called tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis can occur at any age and is a common childhood infection. It is most often diagnosed in children from preschool age through their midteens. Symptoms include a sore throat, swollen tonsils, and fever. 

This condition is contagious  and can be caused by a variety of common viruses and bacteria, such as Streptococcal bacteria  which causes strep throat. Tonsillitis caused by strep throat can lead to serious complications if left untreated.

Tonsillitis is easily diagnosed. Symptoms usually go away within 7 to 10 days.

Causes of tonsillitis

Tonsils are your first line of defense against illness. They produce white blood cells to help your body fight infection. The tonsils combat bacteria and viruses that enter your body through your mouth. However, tonsils are also vulnerable to infection from these invaders.

Tonsillitis can be caused by a virus, such as the common cold, or by a bacterial infection, such as strep throat. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), an estimated 15 to 30 percent of tonsillitis cases are due to bacteria. Most often it's strep bacteria.

Viruses are the most common cause of tonsillitis. The Epstein-Barr virus can cause tonsillitis, which can also cause mononucleosis.

Children come into close contact with others at school and play, exposing them to a variety of viruses and bacteria. This makes them particularly vulnerable to the germs that cause tonsillitis.

Symptoms of tonsillitis

There are several types of tonsillitis, and there are many possible symptoms that include:

  • a very  sore throat 
  • difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
  • a scratchy-sounding voice 
  • bad breath 
  • fever 
  • chills 
  • ear aches 
  • stomach aches 
  • headaches
  • a stiff neck 
  • jaw and neck tenderness due to swollen lymph nodes
  • tonsils that appear red and swollen
  • tonsils that have white or yellow spots.

In very young children, you may also notice increased irritability, poor appetite, or excessive drooling.

There are two types of tonsillitis:

  • recurrent tonsillitis: multiple episodes of acute tonsillitis a year
  • chronic tonsillitis: episodes last longer than acute tonsillitis in addition to other symptoms that include:
    • chronic sore throat
    • bad breath, or halitosis
    • tender lymph nodes in the neck