Retropharyngeal and peritonsillar abscesses


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Retropharyngeal and peritonsillar abscesses

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Retropharyngeal and peritonsillar abscesses


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High Yield Notes

10 pages


Retropharyngeal and peritonsillar abscesses

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USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

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A 5-year-old boy is evaluated on inpatient rounds for a retropharyngeal abscess. Temperature is 102 °F, pulse is 122/min, respiratory rate is 20/min. The patient is awake and oriented and appears tired. He is not struggling to breathe and is otherwise resting comfortably. An area of erythematous inflammation is seen in the posterior oropharynx, and the patient has mild submandibular lymphadenopathy. Parenteral antibiotic therapy is initiated with clindamycin and metronidazole. The physician explains to the parents at the bedside that urgent treatment is required due to the potential spread of infection into a region called the “danger space.” Which of the following best describes the boundaries of this space?  


Content Reviewers

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH


Tanner Marshall, MS

With a retropharyngeal and peritonsillar abscess, an abscess is a collection of pus, and retropharyngeal and peritonsillar describe where the abscess is found.

A retropharyngeal abscess develops behind the pharynx - in the tissue that lies just behind the back of the throat.

A peritonsillar abscess develops around the tonsils, particularly the palatine tonsils which are at the back of the throat.

Let’s start by better defining the locations of these spaces.

The retropharyngeal space is the region between the pharynx and vertebrae and is bound posteriorly, closer to the vertebrae, by the alar fascia and anteriorly, closer to the pharynx, by the buccopharyngeal fascia.

These fascial layers are thin fibrous layers that coat muscles, tendons, and bones muscle, and between them in the retropharyngeal space are lymph nodes.

These lymph nodes are like surveillance stations that bring in lymphatic fluid from the throat and other nearby tissue.

If there are pathogens in that lymphatic tissue, immune cells in the lymph node can respond and try to destroy the invading pathogens.

Next, is the peritonsillar region which refers to the palatine tonsils.

The palatine tonsils are on either side of the oropharynx and are attached to the soft palate at the back of the oral cavity. They’re basically dense collections of lymphatic tissue wrapped within a fibrous capsule - like tiny lymph burritos, that help defend against pathogens in the food and air.


Retropharyngeal abscesses are collections of pus that occur in the retropharyngeal space, the soft tissue space behind the pharynx. Peritonsillar abscesses occur in the tissue surrounding the tonsils. Such abscesses are often caused by bacterial infections, and the most culprit agents are Staphylococcus aureus, Group A Streptococci, and Haemophilus parainfluenzae. Both types of abscesses can cause severe pain and difficulty swallowing, and can lead to airway obstruction if left untreated. They are typically treated with surgical drainage, antibiotics, and steroids, particularly in situations where there is a lot of inflammation that obstructs the airway.


  1. "Robbins Basic Pathology" Elsevier (2017)
  2. "Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, Twentieth Edition (Vol.1 & Vol.2)" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2018)
  3. "Pathophysiology of Disease: An Introduction to Clinical Medicine 8E" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2018)
  4. "CURRENT Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2020" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2019)
  5. "Aerobic and Anaerobic Microbiology of Peritonsillar Abscess" The Laryngoscope (1991)
  6. "Emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and readmissions of patients with a peritonsillar abscess" The Laryngoscope (2017)
  7. "Needle aspiration versus incision and drainage for the treatment of peritonsillar abscess" Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2016)

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