Tonsillitis refers to an inflammation of your tonsils. How long you’re contagious depends on what’s causing your tonsillitis, which may be a viral or bacterial infection.

Your tonsils are two small oval-shaped lumps that can be found in the back of your throat. They help your body fight infection by trapping your nose and mouth germs.

Tonsillitis most commonly affects children and teenagers. It can be caused by various contagious infections, meaning that the infection can be spread to others.

Generally speaking, you’re contagious for 24 to 48 hours before developing symptoms. You may remain contagious until your symptoms go away.

Read on to learn more about tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis can be spread through inhaling respiratory droplets that are generated when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes.

You can also develop tonsillitis if you come into contact with a contaminated object. An example of this is if you touch a contaminated doorknob and then touch your face, nose, or mouth.

Although tonsillitis can occur at any age, it’s most commonly seen in children and teenagers. Since school-age children are often around or in contact with many other people, they’re more likely to be exposed to germs that can cause tonsillitis.

Additionally, the function of the tonsils declines as you age, which may explain why there are fewer cases of tonsillitis in adults.

An incubation period is the time between when you’re exposed to a germ and when you develop symptoms.

The incubation period for tonsillitis is generally between two and four days.

If you think you’ve been exposed to germs but don’t develop symptoms within this timeframe, there’s a chance that you may not develop tonsillitis.

The symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • sore, scratchy throat
  • swollen tonsils, on which white or yellow patches may be present
  • fever
  • pain when swallowing
  • cough
  • enlarged lymph nodes in your neck
  • headache
  • feeling tired or fatigued
  • bad breath

Your symptoms may appear to get worse over two to three days. However, they will typically get better within a week’s time.

If have tonsillitis, you can help to prevent the spread of the illness in the following ways:

  • Stay home while you have symptoms. You may still be contagious until your symptoms are gone.
  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly after you’ve coughed, sneezed, or touched your face, nose, or mouth.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, do so into a tissue or into the crook of your elbow. Be sure to dispose of any used tissues promptly.

You can reduce your risk for developing tonsillitis by practicing good hygiene.

Wash your hands frequently, particularly before eating, after using the bathroom, and before touching your face, nose, or mouth.

Avoid sharing personal items, such as eating utensils, with other people — especially if they’re ill.

If your tonsillitis is due to a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe you a course of antibiotics. You should make sure to finish the entire course of antibiotics even if you begin to feel better.

Antibiotics aren’t effective for a viral infection. If your tonsillitis is caused by a viral infection, your treatment will be focused on symptom relief, for example:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water, herbal tea, and other clear liquids. Avoid caffeinated or sugary drinks.
  • Use over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) to relieve pain and fever. Remember that children and teenagers should never be given aspirin because it increases risk for Reye’s syndrome.
  • Gargle salt water or suck on a throat lozenge to ease a sore, scratchy throat. Drinking warm liquids and using a humidifier can also help soothe a sore throat.

The above at-home treatment measures can also be useful for tonsillitis caused by bacterial infection.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend that your tonsils be removed. This typically happens if you’ve had recurring occurrences of tonsillitis caused by bacterial infections, or if your tonsils are causing complications, such as breathing difficulties.

Tonsil removal (tonsillectomy) is an outpatient procedure that’s performed under general anesthesia.

While many cases of tonsillitis are mild and get better within a week, you should always seek medical attention if you or your child experience the following symptoms:

  • sore throat that lasts for longer than two days
  • trouble breathing or swallowing
  • severe pain
  • fever that does not go away after three days
  • fever with rash

Tonsillitis is an inflammation of your tonsils that can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It’s a common condition in children and teenagers.

The infections that cause tonsillitis are contagious and can be transmitted through the air or through contaminated objects. You’re typically contagious one to two days before symptoms develop and may remain contagious until your symptoms go away.

If you or your child is diagnosed with bacterial tonsillitis, you’re usually not contagious when your fever is gone and you have been on antibiotics for 24 hours.

Most cases of tonsillitis are mild and will go away within a week. If you have repeated occurrences of tonsillitis or complications due to tonsillitis, your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy.