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What is Tonsillitis?

Man with tonsillitis holding his throat with one hand
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Do you have a sore throat that feels swollen and painful? You might be wondering if you have tonsillitis. Tonsillitis is a common infection of the tonsils, two little organs that sit at the back of your mouth.

Your tonsils trap germs that might come through your mouth and nose, helping prevent illness.

Tonsillitis is common in children, but you can also get it as an adult or teenager. It’s often caused by common infections like colds and the flu.

Here we’ll explain how you can catch tonsillitis and what you can do to feel better. 

  • Is tonsillitis contagious?
  • What are the different types of tonsillitis?
  • What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?
  • How can I treat and prevent tonsillitis?

Is tonsillitis contagious?

Tonsillitis isn’t contagious, and you can’t catch it from being near someone with the condition.

The germs that cause tonsillitis, like colds and the flu, are contagious. So, keep your distance from people with a cold or the flu to avoid developing tonsillitis.

Types of tonsillitis

Tonsillitis can be acute or chronic, depending on how often you have it and how long it lasts.

Acute tonsillitis

Acute tonsillitis is what people usually think of when talking about the condition. Acute tonsillitis comes on quickly and usually doesn’t last too long, often about 3 to 4 days.

Chronic tonsillitis

If acute tonsillitis doesn’t get better within a week, it may become chronic. A minority of children or adults may have tonsillitis for longer than usual.

Recurrent tonsillitis

Recurrent tonsillitis is when tonsillitis keeps coming back. Some sources say that you must have it five or more times in a year for tonsillitis to be considered recurrent tonsillitis.

If you have recurrent tonsillitis, your doctor may think removing your tonsils is best to stop it from happening again. This operation is called a tonsillectomy.

Symptoms of tonsillitis

For most people, tonsillitis can feel like a bad cold or flu, which might make you feel under the weather for a few days.

Common tonsillitis symptoms in children and adults can include: 

  • A sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A high temperature
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Feeling sick
  • Earache
  • Feeling tired

More severe symptoms can include:

  • Swollen glands in your neck
  • White, pus-filled spots on your tonsils
  • Bad breath

What do swollen tonsils look like?

Illustration of a mouth showing what tonsillitis looks like

Your tonsils are bumps on either side of the back of your throat. Open your mouth wide and look into a mirror, and you should be able to see them.

If you think you have tonsillitis, check to see if they are red or swollen. You might notice a white discharge or spots on them.

How to treat tonsillitis

In most cases, tonsillitis gets better by itself.

There are a few ways to be more comfortable while you or your child recovers from tonsillitis:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink cool liquids to soothe your throat
  • Eat soft foods
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol if you can
  • Gargle with warm, salty water

If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, your pharmacist might recommend lozenges, throat sprays or antiseptic solutions to ease the pain.

If your child has tonsillitis, you shouldn’t give them painkillers containing aspirin if they’re under 16, and gargling is not recommended for younger children.

When to see a doctor

It might be time to see your doctor if you develop the following symptoms

  • Pus-filled spots on your tonsils
  • Difficulty eating and drinking
  • If your symptoms don’t improve after four days

You might want to take your child to see your GP if:

  • Your child is not improving with treatment, and you are worried
  • Your child is not drinking
  • Your child is taking less than half of their usual bottle or breastmilk
  • They are breathing a bit faster than usual
  • They are less than 12 weeks old and are becoming more sleepy
  • They have a temperature which is not going away

A virus usually causes tonsillitis. If your doctor does tests and finds bacteria are causing your condition, they may give you a course of antibiotics to help you get better.

Very rarely, tonsillitis can make you very ill. Visit A&E or call 999 if you have symptoms of severe tonsillitis that need emergency treatment, including:

  • A severe sore throat that quickly gets worse
  • Swelling in your mouth and throat
  • Difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Being unable to open your mouth properly

These can be signs of quinsy, a rare complication where pus gathers between your tonsils and wall of your throat. Quinsy can be treated in the hospital.

How to avoid tonsillitis

The best way to prevent tonsillitis is to stop germs from spreading.

  • Stay home if you feel unwell to avoid passing germs to others
  • Use tissues to catch coughs and sneezes, and then throw the tissue away
  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after coughs and sneezes

A final note on tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is common in children but can also cause sore throats in teenagers and adults. It’s usually caused by infections like colds or the flu.

Tonsillitis can resolve within a few days and doesn’t always require medical treatment. If your sore throat is worsening or not going away, contact your doctor for advice.

For more tips and health advice, check out our informative blog for information about sore throat treatments. Read our guides on glandular fever and pneumonia in children to learn more about common infections.