Peritonsillar abscess differential diagnosis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Prince Tano Djan, BSc, MBChB [2]


Peritonsillar abscess must be differentiated from other upper respiratory diseases and conditions that may cause throat pain and airway obstruction. These include; croup(laryngotracheobronchitis), pharyngitis, tonsilitis, retropharyngeal abscess and epiglottitis.

Differential diagnosis

Peritonsillar abscess must be differentiated from other upper respiratory diseases and conditions that may cause throat pain and airway obstruction as shown in the table below:

Disease/Variable Presentation Causes Physical exams findings Age commonly affected Imaging finding Treatment
Peritonsillar abscess Severe sore throat, otalgia fever, a "hot potato" or muffled voice, drooling, and trismus[1] Aerobic and anaerobic

bacteria most common is



Contralateral deflection of the uvula,

the tonsil is displaced inferiorly and medially, tender submandibular and anterior cervical lymph nodes, tonsillar hypertrophy with likely peritonsillar edema.

The highest occurrence is in adults between 20 to 40 years of age.[1] On ultrasound peritonsillar abscess appears as focal irregularly marginated hypoechoic area.[6][7][8][9][6][7] Ampicillin-sulbactam, Clindamycin, Vancomycin or Linezolid
Croup Has cough and stridor but no drooling. Others are Hoarseness, Difficulty breathing, symptoms of the common cold, Runny nose, Fever Parainfluenza virus Suprasternal and intercostal indrawing,[10] Inspiratory stridor, expiratory wheezing, Sternal wall retractions[11] Mainly 6 months and 3 years old

rarely, adolescents and adults[12]

Steeple sign on neck X-ray Dexamethasone and nebulised epinephrine
Epiglottitis Stridor and drooling but no cough. Other symptoms include difficulty breathing, fever, chills, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness of voice H. influenza type b,

beta-hemolytic streptococci, Staphylococcus aureus,

fungi and viruses.

Cyanosis, Cervical lymphadenopathy, Inflamed epiglottis Used to be mostly found in

pediatric age group between 3 to 5 years,

however, recent trend favors adults

as most commonly affected individuals

with a mean age of 44.94 years

Thumbprint sign on neck x-ray Airway maintenance, parenteral Cefotaxime or Ceftriaxone in combination with Vancomycin. Adjuvant therapy includes corticosteroids and racemic Epinephrine.[13][14]
Pharyngitis Sore throat, pain on swallowing, fever, headache, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting Group A beta-hemolytic


Inflamed pharynx with or without exudate Mostly in children and young adults,

with 50% of cases identified

between the ages of 5 to 24 years

_ Antimicrobial therapy mainly penicillin-based and analgesics.
Tonsilitis Sore throat, pain on swallowing, fever, headache, and cough Most common cause is

viral including adenovirus,

rhinovirus, influenza,

coronavirus, and

respiratory syncytial virus.

Second most common

causes are bacterial;

Group A streptococcal


Fever, especially 100°F or higher. Erythema, edema and exudate of the tonsils,[16] cervical lymphadenopathy, and Dysphonia.[17][18] Primarily affects children

between 5 and 15 years old.

Intraoral or transcutaneous USG may show an abscess making CT scan unnecessary.[19][17][18] Antimicrobial therapy mainly penicillin-based and analgesics with tonsilectomy in selected cases.
Retropharyngeal abscess Neck pain, stiff neck, torticollis, fever, malaise, stridor, and barking cough Polymicrobial infection.

Mostly; Streptococcus

pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus and respiratory anaerobes (example; Fusobacteria, Prevotella,

and Veillonella species)[20][21][22][2][23][24]

Child may be unable to open the mouth widely. May have enlarged cervical lymph nodes and neck mass. Mostly between 2-4 years, but can occur in other age groups.[25][26] On CT scan, a mass impinging on the posterior pharyngeal wall with rim enhancement is seen[27][28] Immediate surgical drainage and antimicrobial therapy. emperic therapy involves; ampicillin-sulbactam or clindamycin.


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