Peritonsillar Abscess



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Am Fam Physician. 2008 Jan 15;77(2):199-202.

  Patient information: See related handout on peritonsillar abscess, written by the author of this article.

ACF  This article exemplifies the AAFP 2008 Annual Clinical Focus on infectious disease: prevention, diagnosis, and management.

Peritonsillar abscess remains the most common deep infection of the head and neck. The condition occurs primarily in young adults, most often during November to December and April to May, coinciding with the highest incidence of streptococcal pharyngitis and exudative tonsillitis. A peritonsillar abscess is a polymicrobial infection, but Group A streptococcus is the predominate organism. Symptoms generally include fever, malaise, sore throat, dysphagia, and otalgia. Physical findings may include trismus and a muffled voice (also called “hot potato voice”). Drainage of the abscess, antibiotics, and supportive therapy for maintaining hydration and pain control are the foundation of treatment. Antibiotics effective against Group A streptococcus and oral anaerobes should be first-line therapy. Steroids may be helpful in reducing symptoms and speeding recovery. To avoid potential serious complications, prompt recognition and initiation of therapy is important. Family physicians with appropriate training and experience can diagnose and treat most patients with peritonsillar abscess.

Peritonsillar abscess is the most common deep infection of the head and neck in young adults, despite the widespread use of antibiotics for treating tonsillitis and pharyngitis. This infection can occur in all age groups, but the highest incidence is in adults 20 to 40 years of age.1,2 Peritonsillar abscess most commonly occurs during November to December and April to May, which coincides with the highest incidence rates of streptococcal pharyngitis and exudative tonsillitis.3,4 Peritonsillar abscesses are almost always first encountered by the family physician, and those with appropriate training and experience can diagnose and treat most patients. Prompt recognition and initiation of therapy is important to avoid potential serious complications.

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendation Evidence rating References

Treatment for peritonsillar abscess should include drainage and antibiotic therapy.

C

1, 3, 6, 12

Initial empiric antibiotic therapy for peritonsillar abscess should include antimicrobials effective against Group A streptococcus and oral anaerobes.

C

8, 13, 14

Steroids may be useful in reducing symptoms and in speeding recovery in patients with peritonsillar abscess.

B

17


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, see page 131 or http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.xml.

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

View Table

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendation Evidence rating References

Treatment for peritonsillar abscess should include drainage and antibiotic therapy.

C

1, 3, 6, 12

Initial empiric antibiotic therapy for peritonsillar abscess should include antimicrobials effective against Group A streptococcus and oral anaerobes.

C

8, 13, 14

Steroids may be useful in reducing symptoms and in speeding recovery in patients with peritonsillar abscess.

B

17


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, see page 131 or http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.xml.

Anatomy

The two palatine tonsils lie on the lateral walls of the oropharynx in the depression between the anterior tonsillar pillar (palatoglossal arch) and the posterior tonsillar pillar (palatopharyngeal arch). The tonsils form during the last months of gestation and grow irregularly, reaching their largest size at approximately six or seven years of age. The tonsils begin to gradually involute at puberty, and by older age little tonsillar tissue remains.5 When healthy, the tonsils do not project beyond the tonsillar pillars medially.2 Each tonsil has a number of crypts on its surface and is surrounded by a capsule that provides a pathway for blood vessels and nerves. Peritonsillar abscesses form in the area between the palatine tonsil and its capsule.1

Etiology

Peritonsillar abscess has traditionally been regarded as the end point of a continuum that begins as acute exudative tonsillitis, progresses to cellulitis, and eventually forms an abscess. A recent review implicates Weber's glands as playing a key role in the formation of peritonsillar abscesses.6,7 This group of 20 to 25 mucous salivary glands are located in the space just superior to the tonsil in the soft palate and are connected to the surface of the tonsil by a duct.7 The glands clear the tonsillar area of debris and assist with the digestion of food particles trapped in the tonsillar crypts. If Weber's glands become inflamed, local cellulitis can develop.

As the infection progresses, the duct to the surface of the tonsil becomes progressively more obstructed from surrounding inflammation. The resulting tissue necrosis and pus formation produce the classic signs and symptoms of peritonsillar abscess.8 These abscesses generally form in the area of the soft palate, just above the superior pole of the tonsil, in the location of Weber's glands.7 The occurrence of peritonsillar abscesses in patients who have undergone tonsillectomy further supports the theory that Weber's glands have a role in the pathogenesis. Other clinical variables include significant periodontal disease and smoking.6

Clinical Manifestations

Patients with peritonsillar abscess appear ill and present with fever, malaise, sore throat, dysphagia, or otalgia. The throat pain is markedly more severe on the affected side and is often referred to the ear on the same side. Physical examination usually reveals trismus, with the patient having difficulty opening his or her mouth because of pain from inflammation and spasm of masticator muscles.9 Swallowing is also highly painful, resulting in pooling of saliva or drooling.9 Patients often speak in a muffled voice (also called “hot potato voice”). Markedly tender cervical lymphadenitis may be palpated on the affected side. Inspection of the oropharynx reveals tense swelling and erythema of the anterior tonsillar pillar and the soft palate overlying the infected tonsil. The tonsil is generally displaced inferiorly and medially with contralateral deviation of the uvula (Figure 1). The most common symptoms and physical findings are summarized in Table 1. Potential complications of peritonsillar abscess are outlined in Table 2. Death can occur from airway obstruction, aspiration, or hemorrhage from erosion or septic necrosis into the carotid sheath.

Figure 1.

Patient with right peritonsillar abscess.

View Large


Figure 1.

Patient with right peritonsillar abscess.


Figure 1.

Patient with right peritonsillar abscess.

Table 1

Common Symptoms and Physical Findings in Patients with Peritonsillar Abscess

Symptoms

Fever

Malaise

Severe sore throat (worse on one side)

Dysphagia

Otalgia (ipsilateral)

Physical findings

Erythematous, swollen soft palate with uvula deviation to contralateral side and enlarged tonsil

Trismus

Drooling

Muffled voice (“hot potato voice”)

Rancid or fetor breath

Cervical lymphadenitis

Table 1   Common Symptoms and Physical Findings in Patients with Peritonsillar Abscess

View Table

Table 1

Common Symptoms and Physical Findings in Patients with Peritonsillar Abscess

Symptoms

Fever

Malaise

Severe sore throat (worse on one side)

Dysphagia

Otalgia (ipsilateral)

Physical findings

Erythematous, swollen soft palate with uvula deviation to contralateral side and enlarged tonsil

Trismus

Drooling

Muffled voice (“hot potato voice”)

Rancid or fetor breath

Cervical lymphadenitis

Table 2

Complications of Peritonsillar Abscess

Airway obstruction

Aspiration pneumonitis or lung abscess secondary to peritonsillar abscess rupture

Death secondary to hemorrhage from erosion or septic necrosis into carotid sheath

Extension of the infection into the tissues of the deep neck or posterior mediastinum

Poststreptococcal sequelae (e.g., glomerulonephritis, rheumatic fever) when infection is caused by Group A streptococcus

Table 2   Complications of Peritonsillar Abscess

View Table

Table 2

Complications of Peritonsillar Abscess

Airway obstruction

Aspiration pneumonitis or lung abscess secondary to peritonsillar abscess rupture

Death secondary to hemorrhage from erosion or septic necrosis into carotid sheath

Extension of the infection into the tissues of the deep neck or posterior mediastinum

Poststreptococcal sequelae (e.g., glomerulonephritis, rheumatic fever) when infection is caused by Group A streptococcus

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of peritonsillar abscess is often made on the basis of a thorough history and physical examination. Differential diagnosis includes infectious mononucleosis, lymphoma, peritonsillar cellulitis, and retromolar or retropharyngeal abscess. Patients often present with peritonsillar cellulitis with the potential to progress to abscess formation. In peritonsillar cellulitis, the area between the tonsil and its capsule is edematous and erythematous, but pus has not yet formed.1

On occasions when the diagnosis of peritonsillar abscess is in question, the presence of pus on needle aspiration or radiologic testing may help confirm the diagnosis. Transcutaneous or intraoral ultrasonography also can be helpful in identifying an abscess and in distinguishing peritonsillar abscess from peritonsillar cellulitis.1,6 If spread of the infection beyond the peritonsillar space or complications involving the lateral neck space are suspected, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is indicated. CT can distinguish between peritonsillar cellulitis and peritonsillar abscess, as well as demonstrate the spread of the infection to any contiguous spaces in the deep neck region (Figure 2). MRI has the advantage of improved soft-tissue definition over CT without exposure to radiation. Additionally, MRI is superior to CT in detecting complications from deep neck infections such as internal jugular vein thrombosis or erosion of the abscess into the carotid sheath. Disadvantages of MRI include longer scanning times, higher cost, lack of availability, and the potential for claustrophobia.10

Figure 2.

Computed tomography of a right peritonsillar abscess.

View Large


Figure 2.

Computed tomography of a right peritonsillar abscess.


Figure 2.

Computed tomography of a right peritonsillar abscess.

Treatment

Drainage of the abscess, antibiotics, and supportive therapy to maintain hydration and pain control are the foundation of treatment for peritonsillar abscess. Because peritonsillar cellulitis represents a transitional stage in the development of peritonsillar abscess, its treatment is similar to that of a peritonsillar abscess, excluding the need for surgical drainage.

The main procedures for the drainage of peritonsillar abscess are needle aspiration, incision and drainage, and immediate tonsillectomy. Drainage using any of these methods combined with antibiotic therapy will result in resolution of the peritonsillar abscess in more than 90 percent of cases.6 The acute surgical management of peritonsillar abscess has evolved over time from routine immediate tonsillectomy to increased use of incision and drainage or needle aspiration.11 Immediate abscess tonsillectomy has not been proven to be any more effective than needle aspiration or incision and drainage, and it is considered to be less cost-effective.12 Several studies comparing needle aspiration with incision and drainage have found no significant statistical differences in outcomes.11,12

Although it is not routinely performed for the treatment of peritonsillar abscess, immediate tonsillectomy should be considered for patients who have strong indications for tonsillectomy, including those who have symptoms of sleep apnea, a history of recurrent tonsillitis (four or more infections per year despite adequate medical therapy), or a recurrent or nonresolving peritonsillar abscess.6 Initial empiric antibiotic therapy should include antimicrobials effective against Group A streptococcus and oral anaerobes.13  The most common organisms associated with peritonsillar abscess are listed in Table 3.8,14 Although peritonsillar abscesses are polymicrobial infections, several studies have shown intravenous penicillin alone to be as clinically effective as broader-spectrum antibiotics, provided the abscess has been adequately drained.12,14 In these studies, inadequate clinical response following 24 hours of antibiotic therapy played a significant role in the decision to use broad-spectrum antibiotics. Several other studies have reported that more than 50 percent of culture results demonstrated the presence of betalactamase producing anaerobes, leading many physicians to use broader-spectrum antibiotics as first-line therapy.8,14,15  Table 4 shows suggested antimicrobial regimens.16

Table 3

Common Organisms Associated with Peritonsillar Abscess

Aerobic bacteria Anaerobic bacteria

Group A streptococcus

Fusobacterium

Staphylococcus aureus

Peptostreptococcus

Haemophilus influenzae

Pigmented Prevotella


Information from references 8 and 14.

Table 3   Common Organisms Associated with Peritonsillar Abscess

View Table

Table 3

Common Organisms Associated with Peritonsillar Abscess

Aerobic bacteria Anaerobic bacteria

Group A streptococcus

Fusobacterium

Staphylococcus aureus

Peptostreptococcus

Haemophilus influenzae

Pigmented Prevotella


Information from references 8 and 14.

Table 4

Antimicrobial Regimens for Peritonsillar Abscess

Intravenous therapy

Ampicillin/sulbactam (Unasyn) 3 g every six hours

Penicillin G 10 million units every six hours plus metronidazole (Flagyl) 500 mg every six hours

If allergic to penicillin, clindamycin (Cleocin) 900 mg every eight hours

Oral therapy

Amoxicillin/clavulanic acid (Augmentin) 875 mg twice daily

Penicillin VK 500 mg four times daily plus metronidazole 500 mg four times daily

Clindamycin 600 mg twice daily or 300 mg four times daily


Information from reference 16.

Table 4   Antimicrobial Regimens for Peritonsillar Abscess

View Table

Table 4

Antimicrobial Regimens for Peritonsillar Abscess

Intravenous therapy

Ampicillin/sulbactam (Unasyn) 3 g every six hours

Penicillin G 10 million units every six hours plus metronidazole (Flagyl) 500 mg every six hours

If allergic to penicillin, clindamycin (Cleocin) 900 mg every eight hours

Oral therapy

Amoxicillin/clavulanic acid (Augmentin) 875 mg twice daily

Penicillin VK 500 mg four times daily plus metronidazole 500 mg four times daily

Clindamycin 600 mg twice daily or 300 mg four times daily


Information from reference 16.

Although steroids have been used to treat edema and inflammation in other otolaryngologic diseases, their role in the treatment of peritonsillar abscess has not been extensively studied. A recent study reported that 32 patients who received a single high dose of steroids (methylprednisolone [DepoMedrol] 2 to 3 mg per kg up to 250 mg) intravenously plus antibiotics responded much more quickly to treatment than 28 patients who received antibiotics plus placebo.17 The use of steroids in the treatment of peritonsillar abscess appears to help speed recovery, but additional studies are needed before making a recommendation for their routine use.6,17

When the family physician is inexperienced in treating peritonsillar abscess or when complications or questions arise during treatment, an otolaryngologist should be consulted. Once the diagnosis has been established, drainage or aspiration of the abscess should be performed in a setting where possible airway complications can be managed.3 Peritonsillar aspiration is a technique well suited for the family physician who has had appropriate training. The patient should be observed for a few hours after aspiration to ensure he or she can tolerate oral antibiotics and pain medications. Outpatient follow-up should occur in 24 to 36 hours.18 Oral antibiotics are continued for 10 days.

Most patients with a peritonsillar abscess can be treated in an outpatient setting, but a small percentage (e.g., 14 percent in one study) may require hospitalization.12 Hospital stays usually do not exceed two days and are required for pain control and hydration.

The overall risk of developing a second peritonsillar abscess is approximately 10 to 15 percent.11,12 Up to 30 percent of patients with a peritonsillar abscess meet the criteria for tonsillectomy.12 This operation may be performed immediately or delayed until the abscess has resolved.

The Author

NICHOLAS J. GALIOTO, MD, is associate director of the Family Medicine Residency Program and director of the Transitional Year Residency Program for Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa. He also has a clinical teaching appointment in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City. Dr. Galioto received his medical degree from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and completed a family medicine residency at Broadlawns Medical Center.

Address correspondence to Nicholas J. Galioto, MD, Broadlawns Medical Center, 1801 Hickman Rd., Des Moines, IA 53104 (e-mail: ngalioto@broadlawns.org). Reprints are not available from the author.

Author disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

REFERENCES

1. Steyer TE. Peritonsillar abscess: diagnosis and treatment [Published correction appears in Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(1):30]. Am Fam Physician. 2002;65(1):93–96.

2. Khayr W, Taepke J. Management of peritonsillar abscess: needle aspiration versus incision and drainage versus tonsillectomy. Am J Ther. 2005;12(4):344–350.

3. Belleza WG, Kalman S. Otolaryngologic emergencies in the outpatient setting. Med Clin North Am. 2006;90(2):329–353.

4. Bisno AL, Gerber MA, Gwaltney JM, Kaplan EL, Schwartz RH, for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Practice guidelines for the diagnosis and management of group A streptococcal pharyngitis. Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clin Infect Dis. 2002;35(2):113–125.

5. Berkovitz BK, ed. Pharynx. In: Standring S, ed. Grays Anatomy. The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice. 39th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone, 2005:623–625.

6. Herzon FS, Martin AD. Medical and surgical treatment of peritonsillar, retropharyngeal, and parapharyngeal abscesses. Curr Infect Dis Rep. 2006;8(3):196–202.

7. Passy V. Pathogenesis of peritonsillar abscess. Laryngoscope. 1994;104(2):185–190.

8. Brook I. Microbiology and management of peritonsillar, retropharyngeal, and parapharyngeal abscesses. J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 2004;62(12):1545–1550.

9. Nwe TT, Singh B. Management of pain in peritonsillar abscess. J Laryngol Otol. 2000;114(10):765–767.

10. Gidley PW, Ghorayeb BY, Stiernberg CM. Contemporary management of deep neck space infections. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1997;116(1):16–22.

11. Johnson RF, Stewart MG, Wright CG. An evidence-based review of the treatment of peritonsillar abscess. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2003;128(3):332–343.

12. Herzon FS, Harris P. Mosher Award thesis. Peritonsillar abscess: incidence, current management practices, and a proposal for treatment guidelines. Laryngoscope. 1995;105(8 pt 3 suppl 74):1–17.

13. Brook I. The role of beta lactamase producing bacteria and bacterial interference in streptococcal tonsillitis. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2001;17(6):439–442.

14. Kieff DA, Bhattacharyya N, Siegel NS, Salman SD. Selection of antibiotics after incision and drainage of peritonsillar abscesses. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1999;120(1):57–61.

15. Ozbek C, Aygenc E, Unsal E, Ozdem C. Peritonsillar abscess: a comparison of outpatient IM clindamycin and inpatient IV ampicillin/sulbactam following needle aspiration. Ear Nose Throat J. 2005;84(6):366–368.

16. Fairbanks DN, ed. Pocket Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. 12th ed. Alexandria, Va.: American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, Inc. 2005: 40, 86–90.

17. Ozbek C, Aygenc E, Tuna EU, Selcuk A, Ozdem C. Use of steroids in the treatment of peritonsillar abscess. J Laryngol Otol. 2004;118(6):439–442.

18. Roberts JR. ED considerations in the diagnosis and treatment of peritonsillar abscess. Emerg Med News. 2001;23(3):6,9–10.


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