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Peritonsillar Abscess

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What is a peritonsillar abscess?

A peritonsillar abscess, or PTA, is a collection of pus in the peritonsillar space. The peritonsillar space is the area between your tonsil and the back wall of your throat. It is near the opening of the tubes leading to your stomach and lungs.

What causes a peritonsillar abscess?

A PTA is caused by bacteria. It often results from an infection of your tonsils that spreads to the tissues around it. PTA may happen after a mouth infection, including an infection of the teeth and salivary glands. The salivary glands are the organs in the mouth that make saliva.

What are the signs and symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess?

  • Sore throat, often severe
  • Drooling or bad breath
  • Voice change
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Red and swollen tonsil or throat
  • Ear pain
  • Pain or difficulty when you open or close your mouth, swallow, and move your neck

How is a peritonsillar abscess diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your mouth and throat. Your provider will look to see how red or swollen your abscess is or check to see if it is draining. You may need any of the following:

  • Blood tests may show infection or to give information about your overall health.
  • Needle aspiration may show what is causing your abscess. A needle will be used to take the fluid out of the abscess. The fluid is sent to a lab for tests.
  • A CT scan or ultrasound may show the peritonsillar abscess. You may be given contrast liquid to help the abscess show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

How is a peritonsillar abscess treated?

Treatment is done to cure your PTA and prevent more serious problems.

  • Antibiotics help treat or prevent a bacterial infection.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children younger than 6 months without direction from a healthcare provider.
  • Steroids decrease swelling.
  • Incision and drainage may be needed to drain your peritonsillar abscess. Your healthcare provider will make a cut in the abscess to allow the pus to drain. Ask your healthcare provider for more information.
  • Surgery may be needed if other treatments do not work or your PTA happens again. Surgery may be done to remove your abscess completely. This may include removal of your tonsils.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have trouble breathing.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have more pain, swelling, or redness in your throat.
  • Your symptoms get worse or do not get better, even with treatment.
  • You have difficulty or pain when you swallow, or you cannot eat or drink.

When should I call my doctor?

  • Your abscess returns.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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