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Quick Facts

Tonsillar Abscess


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Aug 2021| Content last modified Aug 2021
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Your tonsils are small lumps of tissue in the back of your throat. Tonsils help fight infection but sometimes get infected themselves.

What is a tonsillar abscess?

An abscess is a pocket of pus. A tonsillar abscess is a pocket of pus behind one of your tonsils.

  • Tonsillar abscess is most common in teenagers and young adults

  • Common symptoms are sore throat, pain when you swallow, fever, and swelling and redness in your throat

  • Doctors treat tonsillar abscess with antibiotics and by cutting the abscess open to let the pus out

What causes a tonsillar abscess?

Tonsillar abscess is caused by bacteria (usually streptococci and staphylococci) that infect your tonsils. Sometimes the bacteria invade the tissue behind your tonsils. If the infection isn't treated, an abscess may form.

What are the symptoms of a tonsillar abscess?

A tonsillar abscess usually starts with a simple throat infection that gets worse and can cause:

  • Severe sore throat, especially when you swallow—sometimes you can feel the pain in your ears and need to tilt your head to relieve the pain

  • Red, swollen tonsils

  • Fever

  • Feeling sick

  • Sometimes difficulty opening your mouth

Sometimes, a tonsillar abscess also causes:

  • Trouble talking and a change in your voice

  • Drooling

  • Bad breath

  • A bulge in your neck

How can doctors tell if I have a tonsillar abscess?

Doctors can often tell if you have a tonsillar abscess by looking in your throat for:

  • Red swollen tonsils with white patches that may block the back of the throat

  • Swelling of the uvula (the small piece of tissue that hangs down at the back of the throat) bad enough to push it to one side

Sometimes, doctors use CT scan or ultrasound to tell if you have a tonsillar abscess. Other times, they put in a needle to see if there's any pus.

How do doctors treat a tonsillar abscess?

Doctors treat a tonsillar abscess with:

  • Antibiotics given into a vein (IV)

  • Medicine for pain

Your doctor will also:

  • Numb your throat

  • Put a needle into the abscess or cut the abscess to drain the pus

Later on, if you have had several infections, doctors may do surgery to take out your tonsils.

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