Peritonsillar abscess

  • Definition
    • Peritonsillar abscess is a collection of infected material in the area around the tonsils.

  • Alternative Names
    • Quinsy; Abscess - peritonsillar

  • Causes
    • Peritonsillar abscess is a complication of tonsillitis. It is most often caused by a type of bacteria called group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus.

      Peritonsillar abscess most often occurs in older children, adolescents, and young adults. The condition is rare now that antibiotics are used to treat tonsillitis.

  • Symptoms
    • One or both tonsils become infected. The infection most often spreads to behind the tonsil. It can then spread down into the neck and chest. Swollen tissues can block the airway. This is a life-threatening medical emergency.

      The abscess can break open (rupture) into the throat. The content of the abscess can travel into the lungs and cause pneumonia.

      Symptoms of peritonsillar abscess include:

      • Fever and chills
      • Severe throat pain that is usually on one side
      • Difficulty opening the mouth, and pain with opening the mouth
      • Swallowing problems
      • Drooling or inability to swallow saliva
      • Facial or neck swelling
      • Fever
      • Headache
      • Muffled voice
      • Tender glands of the jaw and throat
  • Exams and Tests
    • An exam of the throat often shows swelling on one side and on the roof of the mouth.

      The uvula in the back of the throat may be shifted away from the swelling. The neck and throat may be red and swollen on one or both sides.

      The following tests may be done:

  • Treatment
    • The infection can be treated with antibiotics if it is caught early. If an abscess has developed, it will need to be drained with a needle or by cutting it open. You will be given pain medicine before this is done.

      Sometimes, the tonsils will be removed at the same time the abscess is drained. In this case, you will have general anesthesia so you will be asleep and pain free.

  • Outlook (Prognosis)
    • Peritonsillar abscess goes away with treatment in most cases. The infection may return in the future.

  • Possible Complications
  • When to Contact a Medical Professional
    • Call your health care provider right away if you have had tonsillitis and you develop symptoms of peritonsillar abscess.

      Call your provider if you have:

      • Breathing problems
      • Trouble swallowing
      • Pain in the chest
      • Persistent fever
      • Symptoms that get worse
  • Prevention
    • Quick treatment of tonsillitis, especially if it is caused by bacteria, may help prevent this condition.

  • References
    • Melio FR, Berge LR. Upper respiratory tract infections. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2013:chap 75.

      Shirley WP, Woolley AL, Wiatrak BJ. Pharyngitis and adenotonsillar disease. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund LJ, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010:chap 196.