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Pharyngitis and tonsillitis

AGE  Pharyngitis more common in adults; tonsillitis more common in childrenGENDER  Not significant factors
LIFESTYLE  Not significant factorsGENETICS  Not significant factors

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are inflammations of the pharynx (throat) and/or the tonsils.

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis
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Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are common disorders, which are often described as a sore throat. The pharynx connects the back of the mouth and nose to the larynx (voice box) and the oesophagus. The tonsils lie at the top of the pharynx and help to defend against infection. Tonsillitis is much more common in children because they have large tonsils, which shrink substantially as children get older. Adults tend to get pharyngitis. However, pharyngitis and tonsillitis can occur together in adults and children.

What are the causes of pharyngitis and tonsillitis?

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are usually the result of a viral infection, such as a common cold. Other causes include bacterial infections, such as with streptococcal bacteria, and fungal infections, such as candidiasis. Smoking and drinking alcohol may lead to pharyngitis in adults.

What are the symptoms of pharyngitis and tonsillitis?

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis have similar symptoms that tend to become worse over about 12 hours. They may include:

  • Sore throat.
  • Difficulty in swallowing.
  • Pain in the ear, which may be worse on swallowing.
  • Enlarged and tender lymph nodes in the neck.

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis may also be associated with a fever and feeling unwell, especially if the conditions are caused by a bacterial infection.

Are there complications?

In severe cases, the pharynx and/or the tonsils may become so swollen that difficulties with breathing gradually develop. Occasionally, an abscess forms next to a tonsil, a condition known as a peritonsillar abscess. Rarely, if pharyngitis and/or tonsillitis is caused by a streptococcal infection, the kidney disorder glomerulonephritis may develop some weeks later.

What might be done?

There are several self-help measures that you can take to ease a sore throat, such as drinking plenty of hot or very cold fluids and eating ice cream (see Soothing a sore throat). Both pharyngitis and tonsillitis normally clear up with these measures after a few days. However, if the pain is severe or has not improved after about 48 hours, or if you have difficulty breathing or swallowing, you should seek medical advice.

Your doctor may take a blood sample to test for infectious mononucleosis. If the doctor suspects that you have a bacterial infection, you may be given antibiotics. A peritonsillar abscess may be treated with intravenous antibiotics. It may also need to be drained under general or local anaesthesia. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to remove the tonsils.

Tonsillitis rarely recurs in adults, but children may have repeated attacks. Pharyngitis may recur throughout life.

Posted 09.09.2010

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