Most cases of tonsillitis occur due to a viral infection. Bacterial infections are responsible for about 15–30% of cases.
Tonsillitis can affect anyone, but it is more common in children. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, almost all children in the United States will experience at least one episode of tonsillitis.
In this article, we outline the best home treatments and over-the-counter (OTC) medications for alleviating the symptoms of tonsillitis.
At-home treatments for tonsillitis
The following home remedies can help treat tonsillitis or alleviate its symptoms.
1. Drinking plenty of warm liquids
Warm liquids, such as soup, can help sooth a sore throat.
Drinking warm liquids, including soups, broths, and teas, can help soothe a sore throat.
Herbal teas containing ingredients such as honey, pectin, or glycerine may help, as these ingredients form a protective film over the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat, which might soothe irritation.
However, there is only weak evidence that herbal teas help treat the symptoms of tonsillitis.
2. Eating cold foods
Eating cold, soft foods, such as frozen yogurt or ice cream, can numb the throat, offering temporary pain relief.
People can also try the following:
- sucking on popsicles
- drinking chilled smoothies
- sipping ice cold water
Other options include hard candies or chewing gums that contain mint or menthol. These ingredients provide a similar cooling and numbing sensation in the throat.
3. Avoiding hard foods
For people with tonsillitis, eating hard or sharp foods can be uncomfortable and even painful.
Hard foods may scratch the throat, leading to further irritation and inflammation. Foods to avoid include:
- dry cereal
- raw carrots
- raw apples
People should try eating softer foods that are easier to swallow or stick to soups, broths, or chilled smoothies until their symptoms subside.
4. Gargling with salt water
Gargling with salt water may temporarily soothe pain or tickling in the back of the throat.
People can make a saltwater mixture by adding a quarter of a teaspoon of salt to 8 ounces of warm water and stirring the solution until the salt dissolves.
They can then gargle with the salt water for a few seconds before spitting it out. It is safe to repeat the process as often as necessary as long as the person avoids swallowing the mixture.
Gargling is not suitable for younger children as there is a risk that they will inhale the fluid and choke.
5. Increasing indoor humidity
A person with tonsillitis may benefit from a cool mist humidifier.
Dry air can further irritate a sore throat. People with tonsillitis may benefit from using a cool mist humidifier. These devices release moisture back into the air, helping alleviate throat discomfort.
People should clean humidifiers daily to prevent the growth of harmful mold and bacteria.
Individuals who do not have access to a humidifier can instead try inhaling steam from a hot shower or bath.
6. Avoiding straining the voice
Swelling in the throat can cause the voice to become muffled. It may be tempting to counter this by raising the voice, but doing so risks further throat irritation.
If speaking is painful, a person should try to rest the voice as much as possible. They should also make an appointment with the doctor, as having difficulty speaking can sometimes indicate a complication.
7. Getting plenty of rest
People with tonsillitis should get as much rest as possible. Resting will allow the body to fight off the viral or bacterial infection.
Continuing to go to work or school not only increases the likelihood of a person being ill for longer, but it may also put others at risk of catching the infection.
8. Over-the-counter pain relievers
OTC analgesics can help relieve a sore throat, fever, and other painful symptoms of tonsillitis. Examples of these drugs include:
Aspirin is not suitable for children as it can cause a life threatening illness called Reye’s syndrome.
Taking analgesics at regular intervals can help sustain pain relief throughout the day.
9. Medicated throat lozenges
Some throat lozenges contain anesthetic medications to numb and soothe the throat. Many also contain anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling and inflammation.
One of the benefits of throat lozenges is that they deliver pain relief directly to the site of inflammation.
Some lozenges also contain antiseptic agents. These help target the bacteria responsible for bacterial tonsillitis.
However, lozenges are not suitable for young children as they pose a choking risk. Some also contain benzocaine, which can have adverse effects in this population. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise parents and caregivers to avoid giving products containing benzocaine to children younger than 2 years unless a doctor recommends it.
10. Throat sprays and gargles
Throat sprays and gargles are another way to deliver anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic medications directly to the throat.
People can look for throat sprays with one of the following active ingredients:
- benzocaine, for older children and adults only
- benzyl alcohol
- cetylpyridinium chloride
- chlorhexidine gluconate
When to see a doctor
Tonsillitis often resolves without treatment within a few days. However, some people may experience continued or worsening symptoms.
In some cases, this may indicate complications, such as an infection that has spread.
People should contact a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- a sore throat that lasts more than 2 days
- throat pain so severe that it is difficult to eat or drink
- labored breathing or swallowing
- extreme illness, weakness, or fatigue
- fever that lasts more than 3 days or goes away for more than a day and then returns
Parents and caregivers who notice signs of tonsillitis in a child should take them to see a doctor.
If a sore throat lasts longer than 2 days, a person should speak to a doctor.
People should also see a doctor if they have symptoms of a potentially serious complication of tonsillitis called a peritonsillar abscess.
A peritonsillar abscess is a collection of pus that forms near one of the tonsils. This type of abscess forms when a bacterial infection spreads from an infected tonsil to the area surrounding it.
Symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess include:
- a severe sore throat that may be worse on one side
- swelling inside the mouth and throat
- difficulty speaking
- trouble swallowing
- breathing issues
- difficulty opening the mouth
- swollen lymph glands
- fever and chills
- an earache or neck pain on the side where the throat is sore
People who suspect that they have an abscess should make an urgent appointment with a doctor or go to the emergency room.
Without treatment, a peritonsillar abscess can lead to sepsis and severe breathing difficulties, both of which can be life threatening.
Tonsillitis is a common condition that can affect both children and adults.
Most cases of tonsillitis resolve without treatment within a few days. In the meantime, a range of home remedies and OTC treatments can help relieve bothersome symptoms.
Tonsillitis may sometimes result in more serious complications. People should see a doctor if they experience new symptoms or if their original symptoms persist or become worse.