Tonsillitis

Red flags

  • Severe sore throat, hoarse/croaky voice, dysphagia and fever is epiglottitis until proven otherwise. Stridor may be a late sign and patients can decompensate rapidly.
  • Severe sore throat where you cannot see evidence of tonsillitis/pharyngitis is epiglottitis until proven otherwise.
  • Trismus (reduced mouth opening), 'hot potato' voice and stertor (snoring sound of pharyngeal obstruction) point to a peritonsillar abscess or quinsy.
  • Patients unable to swallow their own saliva or small amounts of fluid usually need admission, if only for a few hours.

 

Why is this important?

  1. Although rare, epiglottitis can present with sore throat as the primary symptom so it is important to have a high index of suspicion.
  2. It's important to recognise quinsies as they usually need aspiration.
  3. Sore throats and tonsillitis are very common.

 

When to involve the ENT Registrar

Immediately: If you suspect that you may be dealing with epiglottitis, see stridor for immediate management.

Soon: You should inform your senior if you think there may be any sort of pharyngeal airway compromise eg stertor from a large quinsy.

 

Who to admit 

  • A good principle: admit anyone unable to swallow at least a few sips of fluid regularly
  • Patients with stertor
  • Patients with a quinsy (if they can swallow good amounts after aspiration it would be reasonable to discharge after some hours)
  • Important: sore throat, malaise, lymphadenopathy etc. are expected symptoms of tonsillitis and, if the person can still swallow good amounts of fluid, would not normally prompt admission 
  • Important: if the person has not had adequate analgesia before presentation, it's often a good idea to try good oral pain relief first before reassessing whether they can cope at home, with admission as a safety net. 

 

  Photo: Normal adult oropharynx. Note the position of the anterior arches in relation to the tonsils, which are bilaterally small as expected.

 

Photo: Normal adult oropharynx. Note the position of the anterior arches in relation to the tonsils, which are bilaterally small as expected.

Assessment and recognition

  Photo: Tonsillitis. Note that the anterior arches have not changed their positions relative to the (now swollen) tonsils: note also where a quinsy would collect, causing the palate and arch to move medially.

 

Photo: Tonsillitis. Note that the anterior arches have not changed their positions relative to the (now swollen) tonsils: note also where a quinsy would collect, causing the palate and arch to move medially.

  Photo: Tonsillitis in a different patient. Note the exudate on both sides and the position of the anterior arches.

 

Photo: Tonsillitis in a different patient. Note the exudate on both sides and the position of the anterior arches.

  • Odynophagia
  • Dysphagia
  • Anorexia
  • Pyrexia
  • Malaise
  • Swollen tonsils with or without exudate
  • 'Thick' or 'hot potato' voice (not hoarse voice)
  • Lymphadenopathy (especially Level II/III)
  • Otalgia (the glossopharyngeal nerve has a tympanic branch)

Carefully take a history and examine the patient. It's important to note the number of previous episodes of tonsillitis and quinsy.   

Patients with pain predominantly on one side, trismus (reduced mouth opening) and stertor may have a quinsy.

A swollen tonsil is NOT a quinsy (peritonsillar abscess); a swollen tonsil is a swollen tonsil. See quinsy for clarification.

 

Immediate and overnight management

Sore throats are common, most are viral and few present to secondary care. Antibiotics are unlikely to help with the majority of sore throats.

In many low-risk cases, it is reasonable to give a delayed or no prescription, plenty of analgesia and safety netting. This is recommended in NICE Clinical Guideline 69.

You may want to score patients for the likelihood of having a bacterial tonsillopharyngitis.

In those who present to A&E or a walk-in centre, it would be reasonable to try good analgesia (see below) and a single shot of IV antibiotics, observation for an hour or two, and potentially avoiding admission.

Suggest a brief admission to those who cannot swallow their own saliva and small sips of fluid (ie water and antibiotic/analgesia suspension). Some patients can be discharged after a few hours' intravenous therapy if they are at low risk of a complication eg diabetic, immune compromised, septic. Some patients require overnight admission; usually patients are discharged when they can eat a small meal.

Assess patients with 'thick' or 'hot potato' voices and increased nighttime snoring for stertor, the snoring sound of pharyngeal obstruction. Those with stertor should be admitted.

A good starting point when admitting patients:

  • IV access
  • FBC, U&Es, glandular fever screen
  • Regular basic IV/PO analgesia eg paracetamol with stronger PRNs
  • Topical analgesic spray eg Difflam
  • Active fluid resuscitation - the vast majority of patients are young and dehydrated and perk up after fluid
  • A single stat dose of steroid (eg 8mg dexamethasone phosphate/6.6mg dexamethasone sodium phosphate or 60mg prednisolone) can help, especially in those who have stertor. There is good evidence that a single dose of steroid improves recovery in primary care (Cochrane Review) but not in secondary care. 
  • Advise those with increased snoring or stertor to sleep semi-upright

It may be difficult to examine the mouth if there is significant trismus. In this case, it's reasonable to admit the patient, give them some IV medication and re-examine later. The initial treatment can improve your view. 

Quinsies need aspiration and, if trismus is not too much of a problem, early aspiration brings significant relief. 

 

Further management

Tonsillitis and quinsy can disrupt school and working life significantly. In the UK, something like 35 million days are lost annually to sore throats (ENT UK 2009). Here are some consensus statements for offering tonsillectomy: 

ENT UK Position Paper on Tonsillectomy (2009)

Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) Indications for Tonsillectomy (2010)

 

 

 

Page last reviewed: 23 September 2016