Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils, located at the back of the throat. Tonsillitis is usually caused by a viral infection or, sometimes, a bacterial infection.

The tonsils are small glands located at the back of the throat, one on either side. In children, the tonsils act as the body’s defence system, fighting germs and acting as a barrier to infection. As we mature into adulthood, the rest of our immune system becomes stronger, and the tonsils lose their importance and usually shrink in size. However, they remain in the body and can become inflamed when infected; this condition is known as tonsillitis.

Removal of the tonsils (tonsillectomy) is normally only recommended if they cause significant problems (such as difficulty breathing or swallowing), or if you suffer from severe or repeated episodes of tonsillitis.

Most cases of tonsillitis are caused by a viral infection such as rhinoviruses (which cause the common cold), influenza, parainfluenza (which causes croup and laryngitis), enteroviruses (which cause hand, foot and mouth diseases), adenovirus (which causes diarrhoea), rubeola virus (which causes measles) or, rarely, the Epstein-Barr virus (which causes glandular fever).

Sometimes, tonsillitis is caused by bacteria; usually group ‘A’ streptococcus bacteria.

Tonsillitis isn't contagious, but the viral infections that cause it are. These include those that cause colds and flu, which are spread by coming into close contact with someone who's already infected.

The main tonsillitis symptom is a sore throat. Your tonsils will also be red and swollen, and your throat will probably be very painful, making it difficult to swallow. Sometimes the tonsils will have white, pus-filled spots on them.

Other common symptoms of tonsillitis include a fever, coughing, tiredness, earache or headache and bad breath. You may also have swollen or painful glands in your neck and you may lose your voice.

Symptoms can include:

  • sore or painful throat
  • red and swollen tonsils
  • difficulty swallowing

Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose tonsillitis after a discussion about your symptoms and by looking at your throat and tonsils.


The tonsils are found at the back of the throat and are part of the lymphoid tissues (glands in your neck) that help protect your body from infection by germs that are breathed or swallowed. If the tonsils become inflamed (tonsillitis), they may need to be removed (tonsillectomy).

What next?

If you are suffering with a suspected condition, you should seek the advice of your doctor who will be able to refer you to Benenden Hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

There are four ways to access treatment at Benenden Hospital which include self-funding, using private medical insurance or your Benenden membership, or through the NHS e-Referral scheme.