Symptoms and Signs of Peritonsillar Abscess (Throat Abscess)

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2021

Doctor's Notes on Peritonsillar Abscess (Throat Abscess)

A peritonsillar abscess (PTA) is a collection of pus that forms in the tissues of the throat next to one of the tonsils. When the tonsils become infected (tonsillitis) and the infections spreads to the soft tissues, a peritonsillar abscess may result.

The first symptom of a peritonsillar abscess is typically a sore throat that is isolated on one side. Once the sore throat starts, it can take 2-5 days for the abscess to form. Swelling of the mouth and throat (typically on one side) may occur, the uvula may be pushed away from the swollen side, and the lymph glands in the neck may be enlarged and tender. Other signs and symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess include

  • painful swallowing,
  • fever and chills,
  • muscle spasm in the muscles of the jaw (trismus) and neck (torticollis),
  • ear pain on the same side as the abscess,
  • a muffled voice, and
  • difficulty swallowing saliva.

What Is the Treatment for Peritonsillar Abscess?

Patients with a peritonsillar abscess should seek medical care. In severe cases, the abscess may cause problems with the airway which can affect the ability to breathe. This requires prompt surgery to drain the abscess and stabilize the airway. 

In most cases, a peritonsillar abscess can be treated in a hospital’s emergency department or a specialist’s office. Pain medications, antibiotics and corticosteroids are often needed.  

In adults and children who have a PTA without airway complications, antibiotics and corticosteroids without surgical drainage had similar treatment success compared with medical therapy plus surgical drainage. Consultation with an otolaryngologist (ENT) can may be necessary to help determine appropriate management for the individual patient.

Peritonsillar abscess is often caused by bacteria. Antibiotics commonly used to treat a peritonsillar abscess include:

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.