Is Tonsillitis Contagious, and How Long?

Tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils caused by a viral or bacterial infection. The tonsils are two small lymph glands located in the back of the throat. Tonsillitis is very contagious.

Tonsillitis usually comes on quickly, and common symptoms include a sore throat, fever, painful swallowing, and fatigue. 

This article will provide an overview of tonsillitis, including the common symptoms, causes, and treatment options. 

Woman feeling pain from a canker sore on her tonsil

stefanamer / Getty Images

What Is Tonsillitis? 

Tonsillitis refers to the swelling of the tonsils. It is caused by an infection that starts with either bacteria or a virus. Tonsillitis is common in school-age children and adolescents. In the United States, most children experience tonsillitis at least once. It tends to peak at age 7 or 8. 

How It Spreads 

The infections that cause tonsillitis are spread through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, or sharing food or drinks. Close contact with a sick individual raises the risk of tonsillitis. Viral and bacterial tonsillitis are very contagious. 

Incubation Period for Tonsillitis

The incubation period is the time between exposure to an infection and developing symptoms. The incubation period for the bacterial infection that causes tonsillitis is two to five days. 

How Long You Are Contagious

People with tonsillitis are likely contagious about one to two days before they develop symptoms. Individuals with viral tonsillitis are contagious until their symptoms resolve. Individuals with bacterial tonsillitis are contagious until they have been on antibiotic treatment for 12 to 24 hours.

Symptoms and Causes

Common symptoms of tonsillitis include: 

An infection of the tonsils causes tonsillitis. It’s estimated that about 70% of tonsillitis cases are caused by a virus. Viruses that may lead to tonsillitis include:

Less common causes of viral tonsillitis include:

A bacterial infection causes about 15% to 30% of tonsillitis cases. Bacterial tonsillitis is known as strep throat and is usually caused by the virus Group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus (GABHS).

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Bacterial tonsillitis can lead to serious complications when left untreated. See your healthcare provider if you or your child experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Sore throat for longer than two days
  • Trouble swallowing
  •  Excessive drooling 

Treatment 

Treatment for tonsillitis depends on the underlying cause. Your healthcare provider will likely recommend a rapid strep test to determine if your illness has a viral or bacterial cause. If this test comes back positive, the infection is bacterial. Your healthcare provider may recommend a throat culture if it comes back negative.

With the rapid strep test, there is a risk of a false negative. During a throat culture, your healthcare provider will swab the back of the throat and the tonsils, then send the specimen to the lab for testing. Results usually come back within 24 hours. 

Viral tonsillitis usually resolves on its own and does not require medical treatment. Tonsillitis can lead to dehydration because of painful swallowing. For this reason, hydration and pain relief are important when recovering from tonsillitis. Home remedies for viral tonsillitis include:

  • Rest
  • Drinking fluids
  • Over-the-counter pain medicine such as Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Eating soft foods
  • Trying cold food such as popsicles 
  • Avoiding cigarette smoke 
  • Gargling with salt water

Bacterial tonsillitis is often treated with antibiotics to shorten the duration and prevent complications. A possible complication of bacterial tonsillitis is rheumatic fever. Antibiotics used to treat bacterial tonsillitis include:

If you or your child have been experiencing recurrent bouts of tonsillitis, your healthcare provider may discuss surgery with you. Tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the tonsils and can help resolve recurrent tonsillitis. You may be a candidate for a tonsillectomy if you experience:

  • Seven episodes of tonsillitis in one year
  • Five episodes of tonsillitis per year for two years
  • Three episodes of tonsillitis per year for three years

Tips to Prevent Tonsillitis 

The viruses and bacteria that cause tonsillitis are very contagious. While it may not always be possible to prevent infection, lower your risk with these steps:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid close contact with individuals who have symptoms of tonsillitis. 
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. 

Summary 

Tonsillitis refers to the inflammation of the tonsils, two small glands located at the back of the throat. A bacterial or viral infection causes tonsillitis. Common symptoms usually include a sore throat, fever, painful swallowing, and fatigue. Tonsillitis is most common in school-age children and adolescents. Viral tonsillitis usually resolves independently, and bacterial tonsillitis may require treatment with antibiotics. 

A Word From Verywell 

While inflammation of the tonsils is not contagious, the viruses and bacteria that cause tonsillitis are contagious. To lower your risk of getting tonsillitis, take precautions. Wash your hands frequently and avoid close contact with individuals who are sick. It’s also important to avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you be around someone with tonsillitis?

    If you are around someone with tonsillitis, take precautions to protect yourself from illness. Wash your hands frequently and avoid close contact if you can.

  • What does tonsillitis feel like?

    Tonsillitis often causes a very sore throat. You may feel pain with swallowing. If the tonsils are swollen, it can be difficult to swallow or breathe. If you experience difficulty swallowing or breathing, seek emergency medical care. 

  • Is tonsillitis easy to get?

    The viruses and bacteria that cause tonsillitis are very contagious. Avoid close contact with anyone who has tonsillitis, and wash your hands frequently. 

  • Can COVID-19 feel like tonsillitis?

    Both COVID-19 and tonsillitis can cause a sore throat. If you are unsure which virus is causing your symptoms, consider taking a COVID-19 test. 

  • How long does it take to get rid of tonsillitis?

    Tonsillitis symptoms may last from a few days to a week. See your healthcare provider if your symptoms do not start to resolve after a few days. If your healthcare provider prescribes an antibiotic, you will likely start feeling better after a day or two.

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. Mitchell RB, Archer SM, Ishman SL, et al. Clinical practice guideline: tonsillectomy in children (update)-executive summary. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2019;160(2):187-205. doi:10.1177/0194599818807917

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Strep throat, sore throat or tonsillitis: what’s the difference?

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pharyngitis (strep throat).

  4. MedlinePlus. Tonsillitis.

  5. American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. Tonsillitis.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sore throat.

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.