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Tonsillar Cellulitis and Tonsillar Abscess


Clarence T. Sasaki

, MD, Yale University School of Medicine

Last full review/revision Jan 2020| Content last modified Jan 2020
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Tonsillar cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the tissues around the tonsils. A tonsillar abscess is a collection of pus behind the tonsils.

  • Sometimes, bacteria that infect the throat spread deep into surrounding tissues.

  • Typical symptoms include sore throat, pain when swallowing, fever, swelling, and redness.

  • The diagnosis is based on examination of the throat and sometimes the results of imaging studies.

  • Antibiotics help eliminate the infection.

  • An abscess is drained with a needle or through a small incision.

(For tonsillitis, see Throat Infection.)

Sometimes, bacteria (usually streptococci and staphylococci) that infect the throat can spread deeper into the surrounding tissues. This condition is called cellulitis.

If the bacteria grow unchecked, a collection of pus (abscess) may form. Abscesses may form next to the tonsils (peritonsillar) or in the side of the throat (parapharyngeal). Typically, a peritonsillar abscess bulges into the throat whereas a parapharyngeal abscess may protrude into the neck. A parapharyngeal abscess is more extensive and more dangerous than a peritonsillar abscess.

Tonsillar cellulitis and tonsillar abscesses are most common among adolescents and young adults.


With tonsillar cellulitis or a tonsillar abscess, swallowing causes severe pain that often radiates into the ear. People have a severe sore throat, feel ill, have a fever, and may tilt their head toward the side of the abscess to help relieve pain. Spasms of the chewing muscles make opening the mouth difficult (trismus).

Cellulitis causes general redness and swelling above the tonsil and on the soft palate.

Peritonsillar abscesses and some parapharyngeal abscesses push the tonsils forward. The uvula (the small, soft projection that hangs down at the back of the throat) is swollen and can be pushed to the side opposite the abscess. Other common symptoms include a "hot potato" voice (speaking as if a hot object is in the mouth), drooling, redness of the tonsils, white patches (exudates), swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and severe bad breath (halitosis).


  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Sometimes computed tomography or ultrasonography

  • Sometimes insertion of a needle to check for an abscess

A doctor makes the diagnosis of tonsillar cellulitis or a tonsillar abscess by viewing the throat.

Tests are not usually done, but if the doctor is not sure whether a parapharyngeal abscess is present, computed tomography (CT) or ultrasonography can be used to identify one.

If a peritonsillar abscess is suspected, the doctor inserts a needle into the area and tries to draw out pus.


  • Antibiotics

  • Drainage of pus

  • Sometimes tonsillectomy

Antibiotics, such as penicillin or clindamycin, are given by vein.

If no abscess is present, the antibiotic usually starts to clear the infection within 48 hours.

If a peritonsillar abscess is present, a doctor must insert a needle in it or cut into it to drain the pus. The area is first numbed with an anesthetic spray or injection. Treatment with antibiotics is continued by mouth or by vein.

Peritonsillar abscesses tend to recur. Recurrences can be prevented by removing the tonsils (tonsillectomy), which is usually performed 4 to 6 weeks after the infection has subsided or earlier if the infection is not controlled with antibiotics.

If a parapharyngeal abscess is present, surgery is usually done to drain pus.

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