What's Chronic Tonsillitis in Adults?

While you may commonly think of tonsillitis as a kid's disease, that isn't always the case. In fact, there are several different variations of this condition, some of which can affect adults too. But in order to understand chronic adult tonsillitis, let's start with the basics.

Tonsillitis may be more common in children, but adults can be affected too. (Image: Adobe Stock/ALDECAstudio)

What Is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis occurs when your tonsils become infected by a virus or bacteria. (Tonsils are the fleshy tissue on the back of the throat.) While it's common in children, adults can suffer from it as well.

Causes of Tonsillitis

There are two causes of tonsillitis in adults: bacteria and viruses.

1. Bacterial Tonsillitis

Streptococcus pyogenes is the bacteria that causes bacterial tonsillitis. Streptococcus pyogenes is the same bacteria that causes strep throat.

2. Viral Tonsillitis

Viral tonsillitis is much more frequently seen and is typically caused by the virus that causes the common cold. Although causes of tonsillitis may vary, the treatments are similar.

Types of Tonsillitis

Paying attention to the duration and frequency of your symptoms can help you differentiate between several types of tonsillitis.

1. Acute Tonsillitis

Acute tonsillitis occurs most commonly in kids, though typically not in children under the age of 2. Symptoms may come on suddenly or may present more gradually with a sore throat and a fever. Typically, acute tonsillitis can last anywhere from three to 14 days.

2. Recurrent Tonsillitis

Individuals who fall ill with multiple bouts of tonsillitis within the same year may be experiencing recurrent tonsillitis. This type, which is also more common in children, may initially respond to antibiotic treatment only to reoccur at least once in the same year.

Causes of recurrent tonsillitis include carrying a resistant strain of the bacteria, having a compromised immune system or being a carrier for the strep disease.

3. Chronic Tonsillitis

Chronic tonsillitis in adults occurs when persistent infection of the tonsils causes symptoms to last longer than two weeks. In this condition, which is more frequently seen in adolescents and adults, repeated infections can lead to the development of pockets (called crypts) in the tonsils that can store foul-smelling, bacteria-filled stones akin to kidney stones.

Because of this, halitosis or bad breath is a frequent symptom. In addition, a chronically sore throat and enlarged or sore lymph nodes in the neck are usually present.

With tonsillitis, you may be able to feel swollen lymph nodes at the sides of your neck. (Image: Adobe Stock/gstockstudio)

Tonsillitis Symptoms

Though specific symptoms and their severity may vary according to the overall health of the person infected, there are a few key indicators that you may have tonsillitis. Only a doctor can examine you to make a final diagnosis.

  • Red or swollen tonsils
  • White spots on the tonsils (usually an indicator of a bacterial infection)
  • Swollen, firm lymph nodes (the tissue on both sides of the neck just below the jaw)
  • Sore throat
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Mild or severe laryngitis (in severe cases)

If laryngitis does develop, you may notice a scratchy voice (like you have a "frog in your throat") or a complete loss of voice in more severe cases. Minimizing the amount you use your voice can help reduce your risk of experiencing laryngitis or provide relief from tonsillitis.

Because tonsillitis can be caused by an infection or a virus, many patients experience flu-like symptoms, including:

  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Ear pain
  • Throbbing of the ears
  • Low-grade fever, up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Chills

Tonsillitis vs. Strep Throat

Despite being commonly confused with each other, strep throat and tonsillitis are not the same thing. Strep throat refers to an infection in the throat caused by the bacteria streptococcus.

Tonsillitis, on the other hand, occurs when the tonsil glands become infected. Because the streptococcus bacteria can cause high amounts of inflammation in the back of the throat, tonsillitis is a common side effect of, strep throat and the two conditions are frequently seen together.

Is Tonsillitis Contagious?

Whether it's caused by a bacterial or viral infection, tonsillitis is contagious! Practicing good hygiene is the easiest way to keep the condition from spreading. If you or your child are around someone with tonsillitis, be sure to wash your hands frequently and to avoid sharing toys or utensils with them.

You may also want to replace the toothbrush of anyone who has contracted the condition. In addition, one of the best ways to avoid infecting others is to stay home from work or school until your doctor tells you that you're no longer contagious.

Most times, tonsillitis symptoms can be soothed with time and tea. (Image: Adobe Stock/Photographee.eu)

Chronic Tonsillitis Treatment

Tonsillitis will generally clear up on its own in seven to 10 days. But if it doesn't, your doctor may advise you to get a tonsillectomy.

At-Home Remedies for Tonsillitis

There are several things you can try at home to help improve your tonsillitis symptoms. Drinking plenty of water and warm liquids can help to prevent dehydration and soothe a sore throat.

Sucking on over-the-counter throat lozenges and gargling with salt water can also provide relief. Finally, getting plenty of rest can help the body to repair itself and fight off the virus or bacteria that is causing tonsillitis.


Occasionally, persistent symptoms require the tonsils to be surgically removed. This usually occurs when there's chronic or recurrent tonsillitis or when inflammation in the tonsils affects a person's ability to breathe while they sleep.

This procedure is typically done in an outpatient setting under general anesthesia. Unless there are complications, you are usually able to return home the day of your surgery.

Following the operation, you may experience pain in the throat for a few days. Drinking plenty of fluids and eating bland, easy-to-swallow foods can aid in your recovery.

In addition, it's important to avoid strenuous activities for 14 days after your surgery. Be sure to alert your doctor if you experience excessive bleeding, fever or difficulty breathing.

What Do YOU Think?

If you've had tonsillitis as an adult, how long did it last? What kind of symptoms did you experience? Be sure to leave your experiences and questions in the comment section below!

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