Peritonsillar abscess


  • Abbreviation: PTA
  • Abscess between tonsillar capsule and superior constrictor and palatopharyngeus muscles
    • Location affected: superior > middle > inferior pole
  • Microbiology

Clinical Features



  • Trismus
  • Muffled voice ("hot potato voice")
  • Contralateral deflection of swollen uvula

Differential Diagnosis

Acute Sore Throat

Bacterial infections

Viral infections



Dentoalveolar Injuries

Odontogenic Infections





  • The recurrence rate after aspiration is 10% and the cure rate is 93% to 95%. Recurrence rate for aspiration alone may be higher than I&D [3][4]
  • May need IV pain meds, sedation or procedural sedation

Needle Aspiration

  1. Apply anesthetic spray to overlying mucosa
  2. Have patient hold suction and use as needed
  3. Use laryngoscope or disassembled vaginal speculum with wand as tongue depressor and light source
  4. Inject 1-2mL of lidocaine with epinephrine into mucosa of anterior tonsillar pillar using 25 gauge needle
  5. Cut distal tip off of needle sheath and place over 18ga needle to expose 1 cm of needle to prevent accidentally plunging deeper than desired
  6. Aspirate using 18 gauge needle just lateral to the tonsil
    • Use static ultrasound to determine depth of vasculature.
    • Though always a concern, carotid injury has not been clearly documented as a complications[5]
    • May require multiple aspirations to find the abscess
      • First try superior then middle then inferior poles
    • Consider spinal needle if patient has significant trismus


  1. #11 or #15 blade scalpel
  2. Do not penetrate more than 1cm
  3. Only advance posteriorly
  4. May be indicated if significant pus with needle aspiration
  5. Macintosh size 3 or 4 with handle in a "tomahawk" position provides visualization with lighting[6]

Antibiotics Alone

  • A 2018 paper showed that if pts were given abx/IVF/decadron and felt better (must improve clinically), similar results could be obtained compared to I&D[7]
  • Protocol includes the medications below and ED observation for 1-2 hours after, with liquid PO challenge
  • Pediatric protocol is the same, with weight based dosing
  • Medical therapy patients required less opioids, fewer sore throat days, required less days off from work


Coverage for Streptococcus species, anerobes, Eikenella, H. influenza, S. auresus

Outpatient Options

Inpatient Options


Decreases duration and severity of pain


  • Generally may be discharged with ENT follow-up
  • If no pus can be obtained but there is high suspicion for a PTA, admit with IV antibiotics (30% neg aspiration still have PTA)
  • In pediatric patients 50% respond to med management[8]

Return Precautions

  • shortness of breath
  • Worsening throat or neck pain
  • Enlarging mass
  • Bleeding
  • Neck stiffness



  • Airway obstruction
  • Rupture abscess with aspiration of contents
  • Hemorrhage due to erosion of carotid sheath
  • Retropharyngeal abscess
  • Mediastinitis
  • Recurrence occurs in 10-15% of patients
  • Lemierre's syndrome
  • Iatrogenic laceration of carotid artery
    • Carotid artery is 2.5 cm posterior and lateral to tonsil
    • Should limit depth of needle insertion to <10mm during aspiration

Indications for tonsillectomy

  • Airway obstruction
  • Recurrent severe pharyngitis or PTA
  • Failure of abscess resolution with drainage

See Also


  1. Melio, Frantz, and Laurel Berge. “Upper Respiratory Tract Infection.” In Rosen’s Emergency Medicine., 8th ed. Vol. 1, n.d.
  3. Johnson RF, Stewart MG. The contemporary approach to diagnosis and man- agement of peritonsillar abscess. Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2005;13:157
  4. Wolf M. Peritonsillar abscess: repeated needle aspiration versus incision and drainage. Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol. 1994 Jul;103(7):554-7.
  5. Herzon FS, Martin AD. Medical and surgical treatment of peritonsillar, retropharyngeal, and parapharyngeal abscesses. Curr Infect Dis Rep. 2006;8(3):196.
  6. Ballew JD. Unlocking Common ED Procedures – Peritonsillar Abscess Drainage. Arp 4, 2019.
  7. Comparison Of Medical Therapy Alone To Medical Therapy With Surgical Treatment Of Peritonsillar Abscess Battaglia, A., et al, Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 58(2):280, February 2018
  8. Blotter JW, Yin L, Glynn M, et al. Otolaryngology consultation for peritonsillar abscess in the pediatric population. Laryngoscope. 2000;110(10 Patient 1):1698.
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