The tonsils are lymphatic tissue in the back of the throat above and below the tongue. The tonsils are relatively small in the first year of a baby’s life and increase in size as a child grows older. They are usually at their largest between the ages of four and seven years. As part of the immune system the tonsils help fight infections.
Tonsils are prone to inflammation and enlargement. If bacteria or viruses infect the tonsils, the result is inflammation and swelling of the tonsils – or tonsillitis. Tonsillitis is often called acute, subacute, or chronic. Acute tonsillitis tends to be bacterial or viral in nature. Chronic tonsillitis generally lasts for longer than 3 months’ time and is caused by bacteria.
Function Of the Tonsils
The tonsils are part of our lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a key protective system in our body, which is important in detecting harmful bacteria and viruses, which cause infections and can be likened to an anti-virus program on your computer. The lymphatic system helps initiate our immune systems’ response to the infection, and involved in transporting dietary fats around the body.
Guarding the entry to our throat are 3 different types of tonsils:
- Palatine Tonsils – these are what most people refer to as “the tonsils”. The palatine tonsils are located on either side of the pharynx (throat), near the back of the oral cavity.
- Pharyngeal Tonsils – the adenoids are an alternative name for the pharyngeal tonsils. The pharyngeal tonsils lie close to the point where the nasal cavity joins the pharynx.
- Lingual Tonsils – the lingual tonsils lie over the surface of the back of the tongue.
These tonsils form a circle around the entrance of the throat and survey oral and nasal secretions for potentially harmful bacteria and viruses. Bacteria can enter the throat easily via food and drink, so it is important to have the tonsils guarding the entrance. If the tonsils encounter a harmful organism, the white blood cells of the immune system located within the tonsils become activated. Once activated, the white blood cells initiate an inflammatory response in order to kill the organism.
What is tonsillitis?
The inflammation resulting from the response of the tonsils to a foreign agent causes the tonsils to become enlarged and tender in an episode of tonsillitis. Tonsillitis can be a painful experience, and may be associated with glandular fever and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. Common signs and symptoms of tonsillitis are:
- Pain, especially when swallowing
- Sore throat
- In some cases, there may be pus on the tonsils
- In severe cases, one may experience difficulty breathing
Tonsillitis may resolve on its own without the need for treatment. When caused by bacteria, tonsillitis can be treated with antibiotics; however, it is important to note that antibiotics are unnecessary for viral tonsillitis. In recurrent cases of tonsillitis, the tonsils may be surgically removed by a tonsillectomy procedure.
If you have questions about the tonsils make an appointment to see our ear nose throat surgeon.