Is Tonsillitis Contagious?


Man with tonsillitis coughing in bed as his wife looks at him concerned.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, tonsillitis is a common childhood disease, and nearly all children over the age of two get it at least once. Although it's not as common in adults, it can happen.

One of the main concerns around tonsillitis is if tonsillitis is contagious (it is!) and how long is tonsillitis contagious for.

This article will cover if tonsillitis is contagious, its causes, symptoms, and how it spreads.

Is Tonsillitis Contagious and for How Long?

Both forms of tonsillitis — bacterial and viral — are contagious. This means that if you have the infection you can pass it on to someone else, and vice versa.

  • Viral infection tonsillitis is typically contagious for around seven to 10 days

  • Bacterial tonsillitis can be contagious for up to two weeks

You can already be contagious for up to two days before symptoms even start to show. People who have tonsillitis and are infected with contagious bacteria are typically treated with antibiotics. Approximately 24-48 hours after the antibiotic treatment has started, those infected are deemed non-contagious.

Can You Stop Tonsillitis from Spreading?

Stopping the spread of tonsillitis can't be guaranteed. However, there are a few steps you can take to help to prevent the spread of the illness. These include:

Staying at home if you have symptoms. One of the best ways to stop the spread of tonsillitis is to see as few people as possible. This will help minimize the possibility of it spreading to other people.

Note that even if you have no symptoms and are feeling fine, you may still be contagious.

Frequently washing your hands. If you're out and about in a public place and touching things that many other people have touched, be sure to wash your hands.

If you’ve coughed, sneezed, or touched your face, nose, or mouth, make sure to wash your hands for the safety of you and others.

Learning the right way to cough or sneeze. If you need to sneeze or cough, do so into a tissue or into the crook of your elbow. This will allow a minimum amount of bacteria to enter the air around you and others. And it will minimize the amount of bacteria that gets on your hands.

Simply practicing good hygiene is another way to reduce the risk of getting and spreading a contagious tonsillitis infection.

You should always try to avoid sharing personal items with others who may have a contagious tonsillitis infection. These items include eating utensils, electronics, and more.

What is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils, which are the two small oval-shaped lumps found in the back of your throat.

Tonsils are lymph nodes that form part of the immune system. Their job is to help your body fight infection by trapping germs from your nose and mouth.

Tonsillitis can be caused by two types of infection: a bacterial or a viral infection.

Tonsillitis itself is not contagious; however, the viruses and bacteria that cause tonsillitis are contagious.

Key Point: The Two Types of Tonsils

There are two types of tonsils:

  • Palatine tonsils, which are the lymphoid tissue tonsils that are found on the left and right side of the throat.

  • Lingual tonsils, which can be found at the back of the tongue’s left and right sides, as well as the base of the tongue.

Both of these types of tonsils can get the contagious tonsillitis virus or bacteria.

Types of Tonsillitis

There are two types of contagious tonsillitis infections that someone can get. They are contracted, experienced, and treated differently. The first step is to figure out whether you have a bacterial or viral infection.

Bacterial Tonsillitis

One of the most common types of bacterial infection for tonsillitis is A beta-hemolytic streptococcal (GABHS) infection, also known as Group A (GA) strep.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), in 2016 GA strep was responsible for 15-30% of sore throats in children and 5-15% in adults.

GA strep is commonly associated with the bacterial strep throat infection and is caused by direct contact with the saliva or mucus of an already infected person.

Symptoms of GA strep typically occur within two to five days after the bacteria has entered the body.

This can happen when someone with tonsillitis sneezes or coughs in a busy environment where other people can easily inhale the respiratory droplets that have filled the air.

Popular places such as schools and daycare centers for children, are the best environments for the bacteria to spread.

Viral Tonsillitis

Viruses that cause common colds and flu can also be the cause of tonsillitis.

These viruses are typically transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces such as computer keyboards, doorknobs, escalator rails, and card machines, and then touching your face, nose, or mouth.

Because these viruses can survive on open surfaces, their ability to spread is much higher.

Tonsillitis Symptoms

Typically, a tonsillitis infection will cause the tonsils to swell and turn reddish, depending on the infection.

Sometimes, the infection can cause the tonsils to develop areas of whitish/yellowish to gray-appearing pus on the tissue surface.

Healthcare professionals are usually the ones to diagnose tonsillitis following a routine consultation.

Other exams such as X-rays or CT scans may be required if there's a concern that the infection may have spread into the neck.

There are many symptoms of contagious tonsillitis, including:

Key Point: Seeking Care if You’re Unsure

If you you have any of these symptoms but are unsure of whether or not it’s contagious tonsillitis, you can meet with a licensed healthcare provider right from home. Head over to LifeMD.com to schedule a telehealth appointment.

How Can I Avoid Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is contagious and if you're living with someone who has tonsillitis and are trying to avoid getting infected (or passing it onto others), here are some tips:

  • Wash your hands frequently.

  • Use hand sanitizer wherever and whenever possible.

  • Avoid touching your face without having washed your hands.

  • Make sure you and others in your household cover mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing.

  • Stay at home until your fever has gone or you've started taking antibiotics at least 24 hours prior.

  • Ensure that you don't share food, beverages, towels, or utensils with other people.

  • Disinfect surfaces that you share with others. These include tables, cooking equipment, doorknobs, and more.

  • Replace your toothbrush once you've recovered from the infection.

  • Maintain good hygiene whether infected or not.

Key Point: When Should I Seek Help?

Most tonsillitis cases are mild and get better within a week or two. However, you should never hesitate to seek medical help if you feel you need it.

If you experience the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention:

  • Sore throat that lasts longer than 48 hours
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Severe throat pain
  • Fever that lasts longer than three days
  • Fever with a rash

Treatment for Tonsillitis

Figuring out if a tonsillitis infection was caused by a virus or bacteria is important before choosing a type of treatment.

If you have tonsillitis from a bacterial infection, a doctor will typically prescribe you antibiotics.

However, antibiotics won’t work for a viral infection. If you have viral tonsillitis, your treatment will focus on relieving the symptoms.

This treatment includes:

  • Getting rest

  • Drinking plenty of fluids such as water, herbal tea, and other clear liquids

  • Managing pain with throat lozenges and other over-the-counter remedies

For both a viral and bacterial tonsillitis infection, symptoms may disappear only to return a few weeks or months later.

These people may not have been fully cured of tonsillitis, but have instead developed a chronic, recurrent form of tonsillitis that, if untreated, may require surgical removal of the tonsils.

Where to Get Additional Medical Advice

If you’re currently experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned here or are concerned about a potential infection you can Make a telehalth appointment at LifeMD, and meet with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner online.

Dr. Anthony Puopolo

Dr. Puopolo holds a B.A. in Biology from Tufts University, M.A. in Biology from Boston University, and Doctor of Medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a Family Medicine and Psychiatry residency program in the U.S. Army.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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