Although tonsillitis is an infection that can strike at any time of the year, it tends to happen more often during flu and cold season. And that’s the case for a pretty simple reason: The number one cause of tonsillitis in adults and children is a common cold, says Nicholas Rowan, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at John Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.
Tonsillitis is caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. Antibiotics are prescribed when tonsillitis is thought to be the result of the latter type of infection (as they can help symptoms and prevent complications), but not for tonsillitis caused by viral infections (because antibiotics don’t work against viruses), Dr. Rowan says.
“But in most cases the infections will resolve on their own without any antibiotics,” Rowan adds. And especially in these cases, managing tonsillitis symptoms at home is important to reduce pain and help you feel better as soon as possible.
How Long Will It Take My Tonsillitis to Go Away With or Without Antibiotics?
Tonsillitis caused by a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, would typically be treated with antibiotics because you’re much more likely to experience complications, says James Clark, MBBCh, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. “Once a person with strep starts antibiotics, we would expect them to have significant improvement of symptoms within the first 24 to 72 hours,” he says. (It may take three to five days for those people to recover without medication, he adds.)
For tonsillitis caused by a viral infection, antibiotics are not recommended, says Dr. Clark. “The infection would typically resolve itself within five to seven days without any intervention,” he says.
And if symptoms are still present at the end of that period the patient would be asked to return for a re-evaluation.
Home Remedies Can Help Tonsillitis Recovery and Make You More Comfortable
If your doctor doesn’t think antibiotics will improve your tonsillitis, there are still several doctor-recommended home remedies you can do to make yourself more comfortable while recovering. Clark puts at-home tonsillitis care into two categories: supportive care and soothing measures.
Clark says to think of the following steps as supportive care strategies that can aid in tonsillitis recovery: (1)
- Getting adequate rest
- Consuming an adequate volume of fluids
- Avoiding cigarette smoke (including secondhand smoke) and other respiratory irritants
- Avoiding acidic foods and beverages
- Eating a soft diet (foods that are soft and easy to chew and swallow)
Using a cool-air humidifier to lessen dry air that may further irritate the throat can also help recovery. (1)
And he adds that the following can be thought of as soothing measures to make you more comfortable while healing:
- Sipping cold or warm beverages such as tea with honey or lemon (Babies under one year should not consume honey due to risk of botulism.) (2)
- Eating cold or frozen desserts
- Sucking on ice
- Sucking on hard candy is just as effective as medicated lozenges. Caution should be used with small children due to choking and aspiration risk.
- Gargling with warm salt water
Over-the-Counter Medication Can Reduce Pain and Fever
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are recommended to help pain and discomfort associated with tonsillitis, especially if you are having trouble swallowing, Clark says. Follow the recommendations on the packaging and be sure to check with your doctor if you have concerns or questions.
Recommended pain relievers include: (1)
Both pain relievers have different advantages and potential downsides, Clark adds:
- Acetaminophen and ibuprofen have both been shown to reduce throat pain in randomized studies and will also help reduce inflammation and fever. (3)
- There is some data to suggest that ibuprofen is more effective for pain than acetaminophen, but the difference is small. (3)
- The risk profile for acetaminophen and ibuprofen are similar, although it has been suggested that ibuprofen should be avoided in dehydrated patients due to the increased risk for kidney damage. (4)
- Aspirin should be avoided in children as it can cause Reye’s syndrome. (5)
While you may see some purported benefits of complementary and integrative therapies for tonsillitis — such as probiotics, herbal therapies, homeopathic therapies, and dietary supplements — there are currently no quality, clinical studies to back up these treatments, according to Clark. In some cases these therapies may actually be harmful, he adds. (6)
So like all therapies used, including mainstream treatments, it’s best to discuss with your doctor the potential benefits, risks, quality of the evidence, and costs before starting a new therapy or approach.