Red Tonsils

Red tonsils are a common symptom of a condition called tonsillitis, which is inflammation of the tonsils. The tonsils are two lymph nodes in the back of the throat. Their job is to prevent infection by filtering germs.

Red tonsils usually are accompanied by swelling and pain. Viruses and bacteria are the two most common causes of red tonsils.

This article will cover the symptoms, causes, and treatment of red tonsils. It will also discuss the complications and risk factors.

Child getting his tonsils examined

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Symptoms of Red Tonsils

Tonsillitis, the condition most closely associated with red tonsils, is often accompanied by other symptoms. These symptoms include:

These symptoms come about when the tonsils are swollen and red from an infection. When someone has tonsillitis, throat pain can be severe, but tonsillitis shouldn't make it difficult to breathe. If at any time breathing becomes difficult, contact a healthcare provider.


Red tonsils are typically caused by either a virus or a bacterium. Here are the different germs that can cause red tonsils:

Red tonsils are a sign that the tonsils are infected. When one of these germs infects the tonsils, it creates an immune response to help fight the infection. This results in tonsil redness, swelling, and pain.

Red Tonsils and Strep Throat

The most common cause of red tonsils and tonsillitis is the Streptococcus bacterium that causes strep throat. However, someone can have strep throat without having tonsillitis. Both strep throat and tonsillitis usually result in throat pain that needs to be assessed by a healthcare provider to determine the right treatment plan.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Red Tonsils?

There are two main ways that a healthcare provider will diagnose the cause of red tonsils. The first is through a physical exam. A healthcare provider will look in the patient's throat to view the tonsils. They will be looking for redness, swelling, and other changes that could be caused by an infection.

If the healthcare provider suspects the red tonsils are caused by a strep infection, a strep test may be used. During this test, a cotton swab is swiped across the tonsils, then the specimen is tested for strep bacteria. A rapid strep test can provide results in minutes. A strep culture will take a few days to receive results.

How to Treat Red Tonsils

Treatment depends on the cause of the red tonsils. If they are due to a virus, treatment typically focuses on alleviating symptoms while your immune system works to fight off the virus. However, if the cause is a bacterial infection, then antibiotics will be prescribed.

Penicillin or a penicillin-related antibiotic is typically used to treat strep throat. It can come in a pill or liquid form and is taken for 10 days. If someone is allergic to penicillin, a different antibiotic will be prescribed. If symptoms don't begin to improve or if they worsen after three days of antibiotics, contact a healthcare provider.

When red tonsils and tonsillitis are caused by a virus, home treatment can help ease the symptoms. Here are home treatments to try:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Drink or eat cold foods like Popsicles (ice pops) to ease soreness
  • Use throat lozenges
  • Gargle with salt water
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen)


Red tonsils caused by a strep infection can have serious complications if left untreated. This can allow bacteria to spread to other parts of the body and cause complications such as:

To prevent complications, make sure to take antibiotics as prescribed. Do not stop taking your medication even when symptoms go away. Instead, take it for the full length of time prescribed. If the illness worsens despite taking antibiotics, contact a healthcare provider.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Red tonsils are one of the symptoms of tonsillitis. The leading cause of tonsillitis is a strep infection, which needs to be treated with antibiotics.

If someone suspects they have red tonsils, they should contact a healthcare provider to determine the right course of treatment. If a strep infection is causing your red tonsils, leaving it untreated can cause serious complications.


Red tonsils are a symptom of a condition called tonsillitis. Tonsillitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. If the red tonsils are caused by bacteria, then antibiotic treatment may be used. However, if the infection is viral then supportive therapy is recommended via rest, fluids, and OTC medications.

A Word From Verywell

Red tonsils can be a sign of an infection and a condition called tonsillitis. It is often accompanied by tonsil swelling and a sore throat. If you experience these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. The most common cause of tonsillitis is strep throat, which will need to be treated with an antibiotic. If strep throat is left untreated it can lead to serious illnesses.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will red tonsils go away?

    Red tonsils are usually caused by an infection and will go away. If the infection is viral (such as adenovirus or Epstein-Barr virus), then home treatment is recommended. However, if it's caused by a bacterial infection (such as strep throat), then antibiotics are needed.

  • What causes tonsils to be red?

    Tonsils can be red when they are inflamed due to an infection. The redness is the body's response to the infection. When your immune system detects an infection, your body releases substances called inflammatory mediators that cause the small blood vessels to dilate. This allows more blood to reach the tissue, causing it to turn red. Several different viruses and bacteria can cause red tonsils.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Tonsillitis.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Pharyngitis and Tonsillitis.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tonsillitis.

  4. UpToDate. Patient education: sore throat in adults (beyond the basics).

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strep throat: all you need to know.

  6. National Library of Medicine. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. InformedHealth. What is an inflammation?

By Patty Weasler, RN, BSN
Patty is a registered nurse with over a decade of experience in pediatric critical care. Her passion is writing health and wellness content that anyone can understand and use.