Pharyngitis and Tonsillitis

Inflammation of the pharynx (throat) and/or the tonsils

  • Pharyngitis more common in adults; tonsillitis more common in children
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol are risk factors
  • Gender, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

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?

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are usually the result of a viral infection, such as a common cold or infectious mononucleosis. 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?

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.


The tonsils shown here have become inflamed and covered with a white coating, a condition known as tonsillitis.

Are there complications?

In severe cases, the pharynx and/or the tonsils may become so swollen that difficulties with breathing 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 self-help measures that you can take to ease a sore throat (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, 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, especially if a person has had repeated attacks of tonsillitis or a peritonsillar abscess.

Self-help: Soothing a Sore Throat

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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