Peritonsillar abscess, also known as quinsy, is the collection of pus in the peritonsillar space. It is a common complication of tonsillitis and is an otolaryngological emergency. It accounts for about 30 % of head and neck abscesses.
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Peritonsillar Absess

Image: “A right sided peritonsilar abscess” by James Heilman,MD – Own work. License: CC BY-SA 3.0


Epidemiology of Peritonsillar Abscess

Peritonsillar abcess affects males and females equally. It commonly affects people of ages between 20 to 40. The disease is less common in young individuals unless they are immunocompromised. Multiple failed attempts to treat tonsillitis with oral antibiotics and chronic tonsillitis may predispose the individual for the development of peritonsillar abcess.

Causes of Peritonsillar Abscess

Peritonsillar abcess can be caused by both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. Aerobic bacteria include staphylococcus, streptococcus and haemophilus. Anaerobic bacteria include bacteroides, fusobacterium necrophorum and peptostreptococcus.

Peritonsillar abcess usually arises as a complication of untreated or partially treated tonsillitis. The peritonsillar space has a large amount of loose connective tissue and therefore is more prone to the formation of abcess and collection of pus.

Pathophysiology of Peritonsillar Abscess

A specialized portion of the intrapharyngeal aponeurosis covers the medial side of tonsils and provides a space for the passage of blood vessels. It also forms the capsule of the tonsil and covers it. So the space between the tonsil and the capsule is a potential space for the formation of an abcess.

The peritonsillar space is continuous with other several deeper spaces in the neck like the parapharyngeal and the retropharyngeal space and the infection can spread into these spaces as well.

In the soft palate and superior to the tonsil are numerous small salivary glands known as weber glands and they are thought to play an important role in the etiology of infection. If these glands become inflamed then cellulitis develops which progresses to inflammation ultimately leading to necrosis and pus formation.

Signs and Symptoms of Peritonsillar Abscess

  • Peritonsillar abscess

    Image: “Peritonsillar abscess on the person’s right.” by James Heilman, MD – Own work. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

    Severely sore throat on the affected side

  • Odynophagia (pain during swallowing)
  • Fever
  • Malaise
  • Headache
  • Hot potato voice (distortion of vowels)
  • Referred ear pain
  • Tender swollen jugulodiagastric lymph nodes
  • Foul breath
  • Uvula may be displaced to the unaffected side
  • Erythema and exudates on tonsils
  • Drooling of saliva
  • Trismus
  • Dehydration

Diagnosis of Peritonsillar Abscess

There is no definitve diagnosis of peritonsillar abcess. Diagnosis is usually based on the presentation of the patient and presenting signs and symptoms.

Basic studies such as complete blood count and C-reactive protein can be done. Monospot test can be done if infectious mononucleosis is being suspected. Needle aspiration of the fluid can be done to find out the exact organism. Blood cultures can also be done according to the severity of the case.

Lateral neck radiograph can be done to rule out any other cause. Intraoral ultrasonography is also sometimes helpful for reaching a diagnosis. CT scan of head and neck can also be considered in cases where the patient is an uncooperative child or in case the patient is unable to open his mouth.

Management and Treatment of Peritonsillar Abscess

If a patient with peritonsillar abcess arrives in emergency then first of all his airway should be maintained and adequate fluid resuscitation should be done. Antipyretics should be administered in case of fever and if the pain is severe than proper analgesia should be given.

Definitive treatment includes incision and drainage of the pus, needle aspiration and tonsillectomy if the patient presents again and again over time due to abscess formation. For the patients who present first time with an abcess, most ENT surgeons prefer to wait and watch before doing tonsillectomy.

Antibiotics are also given to treat acute infection. The infection is now considered to be penicillin resistant worldwide so the treatment includes clindamycin or metronidazole in combination with penicillin.

Complications of Peritonsillar Abscess

  • Sepsis
  • Shock
  • Decreased oral intake
  • Dehydration
  • Extension of abcess into other deep spaces of neck
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