27th February 2012

Ask Keir: Tonsillitis

This week Keir takes you on a whistle stop tour of the tonsillitis and antibiotic dilemma!

Ask Keir is a new column aiming to answer all your health questions. If you want to know about that funny looking lump that won’t go away, why that student doctor keeps poking you or anything at all to do with health get in touch at: [email protected]

All questions will of course be kept confidential and anonymous.


Question of the Week

Hi, I went to my GP a few days ago because I was sure I had tonsillitis (I had it last Easter) and my GP said I did but he didn’t give me any antibiotics. I meant to ask him why but I didn’t want to seem rude. Can you tell me why he didn’t give me them?

Yes hopefully I can! Right so here’s the basics. Tonsils are a pair of glands that sit near the back of your throat and they contain these special cells that help us fight infection.

When you get an infection it can localise in your glands and when it does this, your glands swell up as it tries to make as many cells as it can to fight the infection. That is how you get your sore throat and find it hard to swallow food and fluids.

Tonsillitis when broken down consists of tonsils  (those glands at the back of your throat) and -itis (inflammation – which is your bodies response to an infection)

An ‘infection’ has numerous causes. Two of the most common causes are bacteria and viruses. Bacteria can be treated with antibiotics and viruses are usually left to be fought off by our own immune systems.

Now most of the time tonsillitis is caused by a viral infection therefore there would be no need to give antibiotics as it would have no affect.

However surely if even only 1 out of 10 cases of tonsillitis were caused by bacteria and giving antibiotics didn’t have a negative effect on your body why wouldn’t you just give the antibiotics in case?

The answer to that lays in the fact that bacteria are constantly evolving to avoid being ‘killed’ off by our antibiotics. I won’t go into detail but by using antibiotics unnecessarily bacteria can build up a resistance meaning you now get these much talked about ‘super bugs’ such as MRSA that are resistant to all but the strongest antibiotics.

The fear is, is that one day we’ll have bacterial infections that we wont be able to treat with antibiotics and that could make them fatal. So that’s why doctors won’t hand them out unless they know for certain that they’ll be of use.

Phew! There’s your whistle stop tour of ‘the tonsillitis and antibiotic dilemma!’ Hope it helps!

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