Retropharyngeal Abscess

Written by Julie Roddick
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Retropharyngeal Abscess

A retropharyngeal abscess means you have pus in the tissue at the back of your throat. This often occurs during or after a throat infection. This type of abscess mostly occurs in children under five. However, it can occur at any age. A retropharyngeal abscess can be life-threatening if it blocks the passage of air to the lungs.

Signs and Symptoms of Retropharyngeal Abscess

The signs and symptoms of retropharyngeal abscess are:

  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • drooling
  • fever
  • severe throat pain
  • stridor (a high-pitched wheezing during inhalation)
  • muscle spasms around the ribs when breathing

Call your doctor immediately if you suspect that you or your child may have a retropharyngeal abscess.

Examination for Retropharyngeal Abscess

Your doctor will examine your throat and check your breathing. He or she may also perform the following tests:

  • throat culture
  • complete blood count (CBC)
  • X-ray
  • computed tomography (CT) scan

Treatment of Retropharyngeal Abscess

Treatment of the abscess may involve surgery to drain it and to prevent the airway from becoming blocked. Your doctor will also likely prescribe corticosteroids to decrease the inflammation and swelling. He or she may also administer intravenous (IV) high-dose antibiotics to fight the infection.

Potential Complications of Retropharyngeal Abscess

In some instances, there may be complications from a retropharyngeal abscess, including:

  • blocked airway
  • aspiration of a foreign object (usually food) into the airway or lungs
  • mediastinitis (inflammation of the space and tissue between the lungs)
  • osteomyelitis (bone infection)

With immediate care, you can avoid these complications and recover fully from a retropharyngeal abscess.

Prevention of Retropharyngeal Abscess

Proper medical treatment of any upper respiratory infections will prevent the development of a retropharyngeal abscess.

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Article Sources:

  • Chu, FKC. (2002, July). Retropharyngeal abscess. Hong Kong Journal of Emergency Medicine, 9, 165-167. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.hkjem.com/html/publications/Journal/2002-3/165-167.pdf
  • Craig, F.W. and Schunk, J.E. (2003, June 1). Retropharyngeal abscess in children: clinical presentation, utility of imaging, and current management. Pediatrics, 111(6), 1394-1398. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/111/6/1394.abstract
  • Retropharyngeal abscess. (2012, November 23). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000984.htm

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