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Recognise the signs: Tonsils and tonsillitis

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Tonsillitis is one of those ailments that can be hard to spot, especially in young kids! Know what to look for when it comes to symptoms, and find out the first steps toward healing with this information, brought to you by SuperPharmacy.

The tonsils are two oval shaped pads of tissue that sit at the back of the throat. They are an important part of our immune system that produce white blood cells and antibodies to protect us from infection. Tonsillitis is a condition where the tonsils become inflamed—usually due to a virus but sometimes it can be a bacterial infection. Symptoms typically include red, swollen tonsils, difficulty swallowing and a sore throat. Specific herbs and nutrients can help support the body to reduce the symptoms of tonsillitis, especially if the problem reoccurs frequently.

The tonsils

We each have two tonsils which sit either side of our throat. The tonsils are made of lymphatic tissue and are the bodies first line of defence against microbes that enter the body through the mouth or nose. The surface of the tonsils has groves, or crypts which increases the chance of foreign material being captured for processing. The immune system can then decide whether this is something that needs to be eliminated, for instance through the formation of antibodies or through the mobilisation of the body’s defence cells.

Who gets tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis most commonly affects children between preschool age to mid-teens. This is because the tonsils are at their largest between the ages of four and seven and are more susceptible to infection. Children who are repeatedly exposed to viruses and bacteria at school or day-care are at increased risk of getting tonsillitis. After puberty the tonsil’s immune system function declines — a factor that may account for the rare cases of tonsillitis in adults.

Signs & symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • White or yellow patches on the tonsils
  • Sore throat
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Fever
  • Enlarged, tender glands (lymph nodes) under each side of the jaw
  • A scratchy, muffled or throaty voice
  • Bad breath
  • Headache

In very young children additional symptoms may include a stomach ache, excessive drooling, refusing to eat and fussiness.

When the tonsils get infected

Tonsillitis is the term used to describe when your tonsils get infected. In most cases the infecting organism is a virus but in around 15% of cases it can be from a bacterial origin. The most common bacterium causing tonsillitis is Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus), the bacterium that causes strep throat.

Tonsillitis Complications

Tonsillitis can lead to several complications, including:

Chronic tonsillitis – infection of the tonsils which does not clear up. The person may go on feeling unwell and tired. Some children can suffer repeated cases of tonsillitis and may undergo surgery to have the tonsils removed (tonsillectomy).

Secondary infections – the infection can spread to surrounding locations including the nose, sinuses or ears.

Glue ear (otitis media) in children –this occurs when the eustachian tube is filled with a sticky fluid in the middle ear which interferes with hearing. When the adenoids and tonsils swell up this can block the eustachian tube.

Quinsy – a peri-tonsillar abscess can form in the throat if the infection in the tonsils spreads into the surrounding tissues. This can cause severe pain and difficulty swallowing.

Lifestyle Tips

General self-care tips to incorporate if you or your child has tonsillitis.

  • Stay hydrated by having small sips of fluids regularly
  • Suck on lozenges that contain zinc, vitamin C, manuka honey or elderberry
  • Provide comforting foods and drinks such as herbal teas, soups, broths, pureed foods and 100% fruit ice blocks
  • Gargle with warm salt water and lemon juice
  • Use a cool-air humidifier to eliminate dry air that may further irritate a sore throat or sit for several minutes in a steamy bathroom.
  • Avoid irritants in the air such as cigarette smoke, air pollution or cleaning products
  • Rest as much as possible

Natural Therapies for Tonsillitis


Considered the ‘king of immune herbs’, echinacea is traditionally used for tonsillitis and upper respiratory tract infections. This is because of its ability to fight off infection from bacteria and viruses as well as being an herb which improves lymphatic function. In a recent 2017 study, echinacea, as well as dan shen, ginger and clove had the ability to reduce inflammation in human tonsil epithelial cells due to group A streptococcus infection.

Zinc, selenium and iron

Minerals are important for many different aspects of our health but especially for a well-functioning immune system. Zinc, selenium and iron are prime examples of minerals that boost immunity and low levels have been found in children who suffer from chronic tonsillitis. Consider supplementing with a powdered zinc and selenium in higher doses during acute infections and in lower doses for general maintenance. Iron deficiency is common in children but before supplementing either consider a blood test or having a chat with your health professional first.

Vitamin C

Suboptimal levels of vitamin C have been linked to poor immunity and suboptimal antioxidant status. Children who suffer from chronic tonsillitis are under significant oxidative stress and require larger amounts of antioxidants such as vitamin C to reduce infection and inflammation. Vitamin C is best taken with bioflavonoids and in small divided doses throughout the day.

Vitamin A or beta-carotene

Micronutrient deficiencies, such as beta-carotene or vitamin A are associated with an increased risk of tonsillitis and infections in general. Beta-carotene converts to vitamin A in the body and is found in brightly coloured green, yellow, orange and red foods. Vitamin A is the most potent form in the body and is found in high concentrations in cod liver oil, liver, milk and eggs.

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