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What are the Common Causes of Swollen Tonsils?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated May 17, 2024
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The tonsils are small masses of tissue found at either side of the throat. While normally, the tonsils help the body keep unwanted infections at bay, sometimes they become swollen and painful. Common causes of swollen tonsils include viral infections such as colds and bacterial infections such as strep throat. Less commonly, enlarged tonsils may be caused by allergies or exposure to an environmental irritant. If an individual’s tonsils become infected regularly, a physician may recommend their removal.

Perhaps the most common cause of swollen tonsils is infection, also known as tonsillitis. Along with enlargement of the tonsils, tonsillitis may also cause such symptoms as throat pain, fever, and fatigue. Despite the fact that the symptoms of tonsillitis tend to be fairly similar from case to case, these symptoms can be caused by several different types of infection.

Many times, enlarged tonsils are caused by a viral infection. Common culprits include colds, influenza, and mononucleosis. Unfortunately, viral infections typically do not respond to antibiotic treatment. Therefore, those suffering from tonsil swelling caused by a virus usually must simply wait for the virus to leave the body. Over-the-counter painkillers and hot liquids such as tea and broth may help make the discomfort of a viral tonsil infection more bearable.

Another fairly common cause of swollen tonsils is bacterial infection. One of the most prevalent types of bacterial tonsillitis is strep throat. This type of infection, caused by streptococcus bacteria, is highly contagious and can be extremely painful. If a doctor identifies strep throat as the cause of a patient’s swollen tonsils, she may prescribe antibiotics to shorten the duration of the infection and curb its contagion.

Less commonly, enlarged tonsils may be caused by allergies, or by exposure to an environmental irritant such as cigarette smoke. In this case, removing oneself from the source of the reaction may be all that is needed to end swelling. If the tonsils are swollen enough to inhibit breathing, however, a physician should be consulted immediately to rule out a serious allergic response.

Some individuals seem to be especially susceptible to swollen tonsils. If a patient regularly develops throat infections, his physician may recommend that he have his tonsils surgically removed, an outpatient procedure known as a tonsillectomy. By eliminating the tonsils, a tonsillectomy can significantly reduce the occurrence of throat infections as well as the unpleasant symptoms that usually accompany them.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet , Former Writer
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including WiseGeek. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By Grivusangel — On Feb 11, 2014

I'm an old pro at swollen tonsils. I still have mine as an adult, and while they don't give me the problems they used to, I do tend to get tonsil stones which, if they don't cause swelling, can still make my throat scratchy. They're also just kind of disgusting.

Most of the time when my tonsils have been swollen, I have had some kind of bacterial infection. Drinking hot tea helps the pain and so does gargling with warm, salty water. That's probably my favorite swollen tonsils remedy. It seems to reduce the swelling and eases the pain at the same time.

M.C. Huguelet

M.C. Huguelet

Former Writer

Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
Learn more
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