A peritonsillar abscess is a relatively common bacterial infection that usually begins as a complication to untreated strep throat or tonsillitis and produces a collection of pus. Use of antibiotics in the treatment of strep throat and tonsillitis has led to peritonsillar abscesses becoming less common. Peritonsillar abscesses are most common in children, adolescents, and young adults. They often occurs at the beginning or end of the winter season, when illnesses like strep throat and tonsillitis are most widespread.
The symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess are similar to those of tonsillitis and strep throat. However, with this condition, you may actually see the abscess towards the back of your throat. It looks like a swollen, whitish blister or boil. Pay attention to any of the following symptoms:
- infection in one or both tonsils
- fever and/or chills
- difficulty opening the mouth fully
- difficulty swallowing
- difficulty swallowing saliva (drooling)
- swelling of the face
- muffled voice
- sore throat (usually worse on one side)
- swollen glands in the throat and jaw (tender to the touch) and ear pain on the side of the sore throat
- bad breath
Peritonsillar abscesses could cause potentially severe symptoms or complications. These rarer and more serious symptoms include:
- infected lungs
- obstructed (blocked) airway
- spreading of infection to throat, mouth, neck, and chest
- rupture of the abscess
If the abscess ruptures, it can carry infection throughout the body and lead to further obstruction of the airway.
To diagnose a peritonsillar abscess, your doctor will first perform an examination of your mouth and throat. Signs of an abscess include swelling on one side of the throat, swelling on the roof of the mouth, and redness and swelling of the throat and neck. Lymph nodes are commonly enlarged on the same side.
Your doctor might also order a CT scan or MRI to see the abscess more closely. He or she might also use a needle to draw fluid from the abscess to confirm infection.
To prevent an abscess, it helps to begin treatment for tonsillitis immediately. When treatment is delayed, your chance of getting an abscess increases.
Antibiotics are the most common form of treatment for a peritonsillar abscess but often accompany pus drainage to help antibiotics work properly. Before you leave the doctor’s office on that first visit, your doctor will probably drain the abscess. This is done by lancing (or cutting) into the abscess to release fluids. A needle can also be used in abscess draining.
As with chronic strep throat and tonsillitis, when abscesses are reoccurring, your doctor might recommend removing the tonsils to avoid future and more severe infections.
If treated, a peritonsillar abscess normally goes away without incident. However, you could get the infection again in the future.
If not treated quickly, longer-term potential complications from a peritonsillar abscess include:
- obstruction of the airway
- bacterial infection in the jaw, neck, or chest
- fluid around the lungs
- inflammation around the heart
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Published on Aug 07, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by Paul Rudd, MD