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Retropharyngeal abscess
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Retropharyngeal abscess

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

Retropharyngeal abscess generally 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 immediately after a throat infection.

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  • Causes

    Retropharyngeal abscess generally 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 immediately after a throat infection.

  • Symptoms

    • Breathing difficulty
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Drooling
    • High fever
    • High-pitched sound when inhaling (stridor)
    • Muscles between the ribs pull in when breathing (intercostal retractions)
    • Severe throat pain
    • Difficulty turning the head
  • Exams and Tests

    The health care provider will perform a physical exam and look inside the throat. The doctor or nurse 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 and is called a throat culture.

    Other tests may include:

    • Complete blood count (CBC)
    • CT scan of the neck
    • X-ray of the neck
  • 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 immediate medical help. This condition can lead to blockage of the airway. This is life-threatening. With prompt treatment, a full recovery is expected.

  • Possible Complications

    • Airway obstruction
    • Aspiration
    • Mediastinitis
    • Osteomyelitis

    This list may not include all complications.

  • When to Contact a Medical Professional

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

    Seek immediate medical help right away if you have:

    • Breathing difficulty
    • High-pitched breathing sounds (stridor)
    • Muscles between the ribs pull in when breathing (intercostal retractions)
  • Prevention

    Prompt diagnosis and treatment of pharyngitis or upper respiratory infections can prevent retropharyngeal abscess.

Related Information

  Peritonsillar absc...FeverAbscessAspirationBreathing difficul...OsteomyelitisMediastinitis    

References

Shirley WP, Woolley AL, Wiatrak BJ. Pharyngitis and adenotonsillar disease. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA; Elsevier Mosby; 2010:Chap 196.

Duncan NO. Infections of the airway in children. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA; Elsevier Mosby; 2010:Chap 197.

Melio FR. Upper respiratory tract infections. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Wallis RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2009:chap 73.

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Review Date: 11/9/2012  

Reviewed By: Seth Schwartz, MD, MPH, Otolaryngologist, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

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