A peritonsillar abscess is an area of pus-filled tissue at the back of the mouth,
next to one of the tonsils. The abscess can be very painful and make it difficult
to open the mouth.
It can also cause swelling that can push the tonsil toward the uvula (the dangling
fleshy object at the back of the mouth). This can block the throat, making it hard
to swallow, speak, and sometimes even breathe.
An abscess that's not promptly treated can lead to a spread of the infection into
the neck and chest, and other serious complications.
What Causes a Peritonsillar Abscess?
Most peritonsillar abscesses are caused by the same bacteria (group A streptococcus)
that cause strep throat.
Sometimes other types of bacteria are also involved.
Peritonsillar abscesses usually happen as a complication of tonsillitis,
when the infection spreads from a tonsil into the space around it. Fortunately, these
kinds of abscesses are uncommon because doctors use antibiotics to treat tonsillitis.
Tooth or gum disease and smoking can increase a person's chances of developing
What Are the Signs of a Peritonsillar Abscess?
The first sign of a peritonsillar abscess usually is a sore throat. As the abscess
develops, other symptoms start, such as:
red, swollen tonsils
tender, swollen glands (lymph nodes) on one side of the neck
a tonsil that's pushing against the uvula
severe pain on one side of the throat
difficulty and pain when swallowing or opening the mouth
fever and chills
a muffled or hoarse voice
An abscess that goes untreated for a long time can lead to serious complications
— for example, the infection may spread into the jaw, neck, and chest. If the
abscess ruptures, the infection may lead to pneumonia.
How Is a Peritonsillar Abscess Diagnosed?
Call a doctor if your child has a sore throat along with a fever or any of the
other symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess. It's rare that an abscess will restrict
breathing, but if it does, you might need to take your child to the emergency room
The doctor will examine your child's mouth, throat, and neck. The doctor also might
do a throat culture
and a blood test. Rarely, a doctor may order a CT scan or ultrasound to help make
How Is a Peritonsillar Abscess Treated?
The usual treatment for a peritonsillar abscess involves draining it. This can
be done in a doctor's office by withdrawing the pus with a needle (called aspiration)
or making a small cut in the abscess with a scalpel so the pus can drain out.
If this doesn't work, the tonsils might need to be removed in a tonsillectomy.
This is especially true for kids who have had multiple recent cases of tonsillitis
or a prior peritonsillar abscess.
Kids who have a tonsillectomy may need a brief
stay in the hospital. That way, doctors can keep an eye on them to make sure everything
went as planned.
The doctor probably will prescribe pain relievers and antibiotics. Make sure your
child finishes the full course of antibiotics, even if he or she feels better after
a few days. Otherwise, the infection could come back.
The quicker a peritonsillar abscess is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. So
if you notice symptoms, call your doctor right away.
Can Peritonsillar Abscesses Be Prevented?
Practicing good oral hygiene can
help kids avoid getting a peritonsillar abscess. And teens shouldn't smoke
because — among other health risks — smoking can increase their chances
of developing an abscess.