Open your mouth wide in front of a mirror. Do you see your tonsils? They're located on each side of your throat, just behind and above your tongue. Years ago, many young children had their tonsils removed. In fact, surgery was once the standard treatment for recurrent tonsillitis — inflammation of the tonsils caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

What is it?

Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils caused by an infection. In tonsillitis, the tonsils are enlarged, red, and often coated (either partly or entirely) by a substance that is yellow, gray, or white. Tonsillitis usually occurs as part of a pharyngitis (throat infection). Tonsillitis usually begins with sudden sore throat and painful swallowing. Sometimes, tonsillitis reoccurs, and may cause difficulty breathing. If this occurs, your doctor may recommend taking them out. This procedure of removing tonsils from the throat is called a tonsillectomy.

What causes it?

When bacteria and viruses enter your body through your nose or mouth, your tonsils act as a filter — engulfing the offending organisms in white blood cells. This may cause a low-grade infection in your tonsils, which stimulates your immune system to form antibodies against future infections. But sometimes the tonsils are overwhelmed by a bacterial or viral infection. The result is tonsillitis.

Various viruses and bacteria can cause tonsillitis, including the virus that causes mononucleosis (the Epstein-Barr virus) and the bacterium that causes strep throat (Streptococcus pyogenes).

Tonsillitis is a common condition, especially in children. Viruses and bacteria tend to flourish where people are in close contact, such as schools and child care facilities.

What are the symptoms?

Tonsillitis is characterized by red, swollen tonsils. You may also notice white patches on the tonsils. Other signs and symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Severe sore throat.
  • Difficult or painful swallowing.
  • Headache.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Enlarged, tender glands (lymph nodes) in the jaw and neck.
  • Loss of voice.

Are there any natural therapies?

  • Herbs such as Echinacea and Andrographs are used to treat throat infections, and help to improve the body's immune function.
  • Herbs such as marshmallow, thyme and licorice have traditionally been used for relief of sore throats.

What else can I do?

Frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent all kinds of infections, including tonsillitis. Wash your hands often, and encourage your children to do the same.

When you use soap and water:

  • Wet your hands with warm, running water and apply liquid or clean bar soap. Lather well.
  • Rub your hands vigorously for at least 15 seconds. Encourage your children to wash for as long as it takes to sing their ABCs, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or the “Happy Birthday” song.
  • Scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • Rinse well.
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel.
  • Use a towel to turn off the faucet.

Did you know?

Adding moisture to the air can reduce throat irritation and make it easier to sleep. Be sure to change the water in a room humidifier daily and clean the unit at least once every three days to help prevent the growth of harmful molds and bacteria.