Two tiny glands tucked away in the back of your throat may be secretly causing you all sorts of discomfort. While tonsils may seem like an insignificant part of your body, these tonsillitis carriers play a big role in your overall health.
Tonsils are small organs located in the back of your throat that act like filters, trapping bacteria and viruses that enter your mouth and preventing them from causing infections.
It is normal for tonsils to occasionally become swollen when fighting an infection. However, sometimes the tonsils themselves become infected, resulting in a condition called tonsillitis.
Dr Afifa Titus from Cape Town describes the causes of tonsillitis as bacterial and viral infections. He says viral and bacterial infections are contagious and are contracted through airborne methods such as being in proximity of an infected person sneezing or coughing, and he recommends the importance of maintaining good hygiene to avoid known outbreaks.
‘Pain is unbearable’
For Simphiwe Sibiya from Johannesburg, who started having tonsillitis at a tender age, adjusting to the pain of eating when experiencing swollen tonsils is still difficult, and he can never get used to it.
“It’s hard having tonsillitis, but at some point, you have to try and eat something; there’s a lot of pain, especially when swallowing. The pain is unbearable, so I only drink amahewu because I can’t handle pap or rice. My mouth will be full of saliva, so sometimes there’s a bad smell coming from the mouth. Tonsilitis is very dangerous,” he says.
Noxolo Mfeka from Newcastle, KwaZulul-Natal says she is unable to cope with the pain when tonsillitis starts.
“The pain of tonsillitis becomes very unbearable when I have sores. It affects my swallowing because I can’t eat when the pain starts, and I am only able to drink amahewu. I try to mix rough salt with warm water and gargle with it to try to manage the pain,” she says.
Why kids are more prone
According to Titus, children between the ages of 5 and 15 are more likely to get tonsillitis than adults due to increased germ exposure with other kids their age in school.
“The elderly only become at high risk for tonsillitis due to their weakened immune systems and potentially multiple medical conditions. Adults who spend increased time around young children may also be more likely to be infected with tonsillitis.”
She further explains that frequent or ongoing tonsillitis can cause inflamed or enlarged tonsils, which in turn can cause complications such as difficulty breathing during sleep due to obstruction of the airway.
“Infection can spread deep into tissue and cause a collection of pus behind a tonsil. If tonsillitis is caused by a specific strain of bacteria such as streptococcus and it isn’t treated with antibiotics or the course of antibiotics is not completed, there is a risk of developing disease processes such as rheumatic fever (an inflammatory condition that can affect the heart, joints, nervous system, and skin), post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidney), and reactive arthritis (a condition that causes inflammation of the joints caused by streptococcal infection),” she explains.
When to remove tonsils
Titus says the removal of tonsils or tonsillectomy is recommended when a person frequently has episodes of tonsillitis throughout their life, if a bacterial case of tonsillitis doesn’t improve with antibiotic treatment, or if infected tonsils develop a pus collection behind them and doesn’t improve with antibiotic treatment or surgical drainage.
She further advises that it is key to create a healthy and balanced lifestyle in order to maintain a strong and healthy immune system through getting sufficient sleep, exercising regularly, consuming a healthy diet, and avoiding copious amounts of alcohol and smoking.
“Maintaining a strong immune system is vital in reducing the risk of contracting any infection, and hence tonsillitis,” she adds.
Get the Mzansi Flavour newsletter: A weekly serving of crave-able recipes and handy lifestyle tips.