What causes swollen tonsils and how to treat them?

Symptom Database

Swollen tonsils, also known as tonsil swelling or tonsillitis, can be a painful and uncomfortable condition. The tonsils are two small glands located at the back of the throat, and they play a crucial role in the immune system by trapping bacteria and viruses that enter through the mouth and nose. However, sometimes the tonsils themselves can become infected or inflamed, leading to various symptoms such as sore throat, tonsil pain, and swollen throat. In this article, we will explore the causes of swollen tonsils and discuss effective treatment options.

Tonsil Infection: A Common Cause of Swollen Tonsils

One of the primary causes of swollen tonsils is a tonsil infection. This can occur due to a viral or bacterial infection, with the latter being more common. Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria responsible for strep throat, is a frequent culprit. When these bacteria invade the tonsils, they can cause inflammation and swelling.

Common symptoms of a tonsil infection include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • White or yellow spots on the tonsils

If you suspect a tonsil infection, it is essential to seek medical attention. A healthcare professional can perform a throat swab to determine the cause of the infection and prescribe appropriate treatment, such as antibiotics if the infection is bacterial.

Tonsil Inflammation: When the Tonsils Become Inflamed

Tonsil inflammation, also known as tonsillitis, can occur due to various factors. In addition to infections, other causes of tonsil inflammation include allergies, smoking, and exposure to irritants. When the tonsils become inflamed, they can swell and cause discomfort.

Common symptoms of tonsil inflammation include:

  • Sore throat
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Redness of the tonsils
  • Tonsil pain

Treatment for tonsil inflammation depends on the underlying cause. If the inflammation is due to an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. However, if allergies or irritants are the cause, avoiding the triggers and using over-the-counter antihistamines or throat sprays can help alleviate symptoms.

Enlarged Tonsils: When the Tonsils Grow in Size

Enlarged tonsils, also known as hypertrophic tonsils, can be another cause of swollen tonsils. This condition is more common in children and can lead to various symptoms, including difficulty breathing, snoring, and sleep apnea.

If enlarged tonsils are causing significant symptoms or recurrent infections, a healthcare professional may recommend a tonsillectomy, which is the surgical removal of the tonsils. This procedure can provide long-term relief and improve overall health.

Tonsil Stones: A Lesser-Known Cause of Swollen Tonsils

Tonsil stones, also known as tonsilloliths, are small, calcified deposits that form in the crevices of the tonsils. These stones can cause irritation and inflammation, leading to swollen tonsils.

Common symptoms of tonsil stones include:

  • Bad breath
  • White or yellowish formations on the tonsils
  • Ear pain
  • Difficulty swallowing

To treat tonsil stones, gentle removal using a cotton swab or gargling with saltwater can help dislodge them. Maintaining good oral hygiene and regularly gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash can also prevent their formation.


Swollen tonsils can be caused by various factors, including infections, inflammation, enlarged tonsils, and tonsil stones. It is crucial to seek medical attention if you experience persistent symptoms or if the swelling is severe. A healthcare professional can diagnose the underlying cause and recommend appropriate treatment options. Remember to practice good oral hygiene and avoid irritants to prevent future episodes of swollen tonsils. By taking proactive measures and seeking timely medical care, you can alleviate discomfort and promote a healthy throat.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
Add a comment