Last updated:
August 14, 2023
Reviewed by
Dr. Sarah Wells

Tonsillitis is a common infection that affects the tonsils in the throat and can be caused by either a virus or bacteria, such as strep throat.

What is tonsillitis?

When you catch a cold or flu, your tonsils help fight the infection. Tonsillitis causes swollen and sore tonsils, which can mimic flu or cold symptoms.

What causes tonsillitis?

The main symptom of tonsillitis is swollen, red tonsils. Symptoms are caused by the same bacteria that causes strep throat.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

The main symptom is having swollen, red tonsils. You may be able to see this in a mirror. Other key symptoms include:

  • A sore throat
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • A high temperature
  • Headache
  • Earache
  • Coughing
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling sick

With more severe tonsillitis, you might also have:

  • Swollen glands in your neck
  • White spots filled with pus on your tonsils
  • Smelly breath

Is tonsillitis contagious?

While tonsillitis itself isn’t contagious, you can still spread the viruses or bacteria that have caused it. The infection is usually spread through droplets from coughing, sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces.

How long you’re contagious depends on the cause of your tonsillitis. You’re usually contagious a couple of days before you develop symptoms and might be contagious until your symptoms disappear.

If you or your child has tonsillitis, staying home and resting is recommended. The following steps will help to prevent you from spreading the infection:

  • Stay home from work or school until the symptoms get better
  • Use tissues to catch coughs or sneezes, and flush them in the toilet or throw them away straight away
  • Wash your hands often – especially after you’ve coughed or sneezed

How is tonsillitis treated?

If you think you have tonsillitis, consult a doctor. Bacterial tonsillitis can be treated with antibiotics, which can be prescribed by a doctor who can also differentiate between bacterial and viral tonsillitis. Unfortunately, there is no cure for viral tonsillitis, but you can take self-care measures to speed up your recovery:

  • Get lots of rest
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Suck lozenges or use throat spray
  • Try cool drinks or even ice lollies to soothe your sore throat
  • Gargle with warm salt water (though children should avoid doing this, in case they swallow it)
  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease the pain

When should I talk to a doctor?

If you experience white spots on your tonsils or have difficulty swallowing food or drink due to a sore throat, it is important to consult a doctor. If tonsillitis symptoms persist for more than four days, a doctor may recommend a swab test to check for bacterial tonsillitis or a blood test to check for glandular fever.

How can a private GP at the Wells Clinic help?

A Wells doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. They’ll make an individual assessment, recommend a treatment or refer you to a specialist if needed.