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Retropharyngeal abscess

Retropharyngeal abscess is a collection of pus in the tissues in the back of the throat. It can be a life-threatening medical condition.

Images

Throat anatomy
Oropharynx

Causes

Retropharyngeal abscess most often affects children under age 5, but it can occur at any age.

Infected material (pus) builds up in the space around the tissues at the back of the throat. This can occur during or very soon after a throat infection.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam and look inside the throat. The provider may gently rub the back of the throat with a cotton swab. This is to take a sample of tissue to check it more closely. It is called a throat culture.

Other tests may include:

Treatment

Surgery is needed to drain the infected area. Corticosteroids are sometimes given to reduce airway swelling. High-dose antibiotics are given through a vein (intravenous) to treat the infection.

The airway will be protected so that it does not become completely blocked by the swelling.

Outlook (Prognosis)

It is important to get medical help right away. This condition can lead to blockage of the airway. This is life threatening. With prompt treatment, a full recovery is expected.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you or your child develops a high fever with severe throat pain.

Get medical help right away if you have:

Prevention

Prompt diagnosis and treatment of a sore throat or upper respiratory infection can prevent this problem.

Related Information

Peritonsillar abscess
Fever
Abscess
Aspiration
Breathing difficulty
Osteomyelitis
Mediastinitis

References

James P, Hanna S. Upper airway obstruction in children. In: Bersten AD, Handy JM, eds. Oh's Intensive Care Manual. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 106.

Melio FR. Upper respiratory tract infections. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 65.

Pappas DE, Hendley JO. Retropharyngeal abscess, lateral pharyngeal (parapharyngeal) abscess, and peritonsillar cellulitis/abscess. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 410.

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Review Date: 12/31/2020  

Reviewed By: Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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