Tonsillitis in toddlers and babies: what are the symptoms and treatment?

Tonsilitis in toddlers and babies: what are the symptoms and treatment?
(Image credit: Maria Pavlova)

Tonsillitis is not traditionally an illness you associate with babies. Coughs, colds (opens in new tab), constipation (opens in new tab), yes. But tonsillitis seems like a grown up illness. The condition is most common in children and teenagers, though sadly it's also a very real threat to babies (opens in new tab) and toddlers.

One of the main symptoms is a sore throat (opens in new tab), and while this is easy to complain about as an older child or adult, it can be hard to know that a baby has a sore throat if they can't yet talk.

READ MORE: Common childhood illnesses (opens in new tab)

While this infection is painful for babies, it's hard for their parents too. Your baby is in such pain that they may refuse to eat even when hungry. Baby will cry often, and every time they open their mouth, their red throat is visible, which can be worrying.

If you think your baby or toddler might be suffering from condition, here's what you need to know...

What is tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection on the tonsils - which are lumps of tissue on both sides at the back of the throat - and it's normally caused by viruses and certain types of bacteria.

If it is caused by a virus, the body will fight off the infection on its own.

However, if it's caused by strep bacteria, the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. Make sure that your child takes the antibiotics exactly as directed and finishes the entire prescription — even if he or she starts feeling better in a few days — or the infection could come back.

Tonsillitis in toddlers and babies: what are the symptoms and treatment?

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Sometimes, a doctor might recommend a tonsillectomy, which is a surgery to remove the tonsils, if a child's tonsils get infected a lot or are so big they make it hard to breathe at night.

How do you catch it?

According to the NHS, tonsils are a part of the lymphatic system and constitute the body’s first line of defence.

The tonsils protect the upper respiratory system from bacteria that enter the body through the nose or mouth. Because of this it makes them vulnerable to infections, leading to tonsillitis.

How to spot the signs?

Watch for decreased appetite and drooling; sometimes, a baby may drool more than usual when they have tonsillitis because it hurts to swallow.

As Jana Abelovska, Medical Advisor at Click Pharmacy (opens in new tab) says, "There are a few key signs for spotting symptoms in babies and toddlers, these are; difficulty swallowing, tender glands under the jaw (lymph nodes), pain in their ears, a fever, bad or rancid breath, loss of appetite, and in babies your child will most likely be crying more often due to the pain.”

Other symptoms include a sore throat (leading to the difficulty swallowing) and a hoarse voice that can be heard as they're crying.

Is tonsillitis contagious?

If the tonsillitis is caused by a virus it can be contagious for about seven to 10 days.

Untreated bacterial tonsillitis may be contagious for about two weeks. However, people with the bacterial type treated with antibiotics generally become non-contagious 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment for strep throat.

How do you treat tonsillitis in babies?


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If your child has tonsillitis for the first time, take them to see a GP if possible. They will be able to prescribe the best course of treatment, but they're unlikely to prescribe any antibiotics. Since tonsillitis is normally caused by a viral infection rather than a bacterial one, antibiotics won't help to treat most cases of tonsillitis in babies.

Instead, you will likely be advised to treat their symptoms to ease the pain. Jana says, "Paracetamol or ibuprofen should help to ease any pain your child is in due to inflamed tonsils and should also help to lower their fever.

"You want to give them soft foods such as puddings, soft white bread dampened by milk, smashed up banana, or ice-cream, these will be less harsh on the throat than scratchy, hard foods such as toast or cereal."

Make sure that your baby also gets plenty of sleep (opens in new tab), as they'll need to rest to recover.

How long does tonsillitis last in a baby?

"Symptoms of tonsillitis will usually start to ease after 3-4 days," Jana says, "It is not contagious however the infections that cause it such as a flu can spread, so if your baby has it you should keep them at home until they feel better, and I would advise you to also stay home and not go into work."

How to soothe tonsillitis in toddlers?

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Tonsillitis is a painful condition for adults at the best of times, so for toddlers who can't do much to help themselves, it's often alarming.

Soothing tonsillitis in toddlers is much the same as in babies, Jana says. "Soothing tonsillitis in toddlers is very similar to babies, however in some respects it may be easier to soothe your baby as they will most likely eat the soft foods without too much complaint as they are more use to this and will also be able to take naps as oppose to toddlers who are full of beans and may also find the whole thing rather traumatic."

How do you treat tonsillitis in toddlers?

As it is often caused by a viral rather than bacterial infection, it's unlikely that a doctor would prescribe antibiotics. The best thing to treat tonsillitis in toddlers is to manage their discomfort through painkillers, plenty of rest and soft foods. The symptoms of tonsillitis in toddlers should naturally subside within three to four days.

During this time, it's best to keep your child's drinking glasses and eating utensils separate to avoid contamination to the rest of your household. Be sure to wash them in hot, soapy water as well or put them in the dishwasher.

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodTo covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. With his love of choo-choos, Hey Duggee and finger painting he keeps her on her toes.