Retropharyngeal abscess


  • Polymicrobial abscess in space between posterior pharyngeal wall and prevertebral fascia
  • Adults: Due to direct extension of purulent debris from adjacent site (e.g. Ludwig's angina)
    • More likely to extend into the mediastinum
  • Children: Due to suppurative changes within a lymph node (primary infection elsewhere in head or neck)
  • Trauma: Direct inoculation (e.g. child falling with stick in mouth)
  • Patients may prefer to lay supine to prevent abscess and edematous posterior wall to collapse into airway, so patients should not be forced to sit up

Clinical Features

Initial symptoms

Late symptoms

  • Stridor, respiratory distress, chest pain (mediastinitis)
  • Drooling, neck stiffness
  • Involvement of carotid neurovascular sheath


Differential Diagnosis

Acute Sore Throat

Bacterial infections

Viral infections



Pediatric stridor


  • Laryngotracheomalacia
    • Accounts for 60%
    • Usually exacerbated by viral URI
    • Dx w/ flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy
  • Vocal cord paralysis
    • Stridor associated w/ feeding problems, hoarse voice, weak and/or changing cry
    • May have cyanosis or apnea if bilateral (less common)
  • Subglottic stenosis
    • Congenital vs 2/2 prolonged intubation in premies
  • Airway hemangioma
    • Usually regresses by age 5
    • Associated w/ skin hemangiomas in beard distribution
  • Vascular ring/sling


  • Croup
    • viral laryngotracheobronchitis
    • 6 mo- 3 yr, peaks at 2 yrs
    • Most severe on 3rd-4th day of illness
    • Steeple sign not reliable- diagnose clinically
  • Epiglottitis
    • H flu type B
      • Have higher suspicion in unvaccinated children
    • Rapid onset sore throat, fever, drooling
    • Difficult airway- call anesthesia/ ENT early
  • Bacterial tracheitis
    • Rare but causes life-threatening obstruction
    • Sx of croup + toxic-appearing = bacterial tracheitis
  • Foreign body (sudden onset)
    • Marked variation in quality or pattern of stridor
  • Retropharyngeal abscess
    • Fever, neck pain, dysphagia, muffled voice, drooling, neck stiffness/torticollis/extension


  • CT neck with IV contrast
    • Gold standard
  • XR Soft tissue
    • Neck in extension at end inspiration
    • The prevertebral space should be less than 7mm at C2, 14mm at C6 in children regardless of the age
    • The prevertebral space should be less than 22mm at C6 in adults
    • The prevertebral space should be less than one-half the width of the corresponding vertebral body
    • If equivocal XR, order CT


  1. Emergent ENT consult
    • Most patients require I&D
    • Indications for drainage - trismus, rim enhancement on CT
  2. Secure airway - care must be taken to minimize contact with abscess as rupture is significant risk
    1. Tracheostomy or fiberoptic intubation may be necessary
    2. CT or MRI may help prepare for method of definitive airway[2]



  • Admit

See Also


  1. Melio, Frantz, and Laurel Berge. “Upper Respiratory Tract Infection.” In Rosen’s Emergency Medicine., 8th ed. Vol. 1, n.d.
  2. Mulimani SM. Anesthetic management of tuberculous retropharyngeal abscess in adult. J Anaesthesiol Clin Pharmacol. 2012 Jan-Mar; 28(1): 128–129.
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