Parapharyngeal abscess

Last revised by Ian Bickle on 1 Oct 2020

Parapharyngeal abscesses are deep neck abscesses involving the parapharyngeal space. It is a serious medical condition, potentially fatal, and requires prompt diagnosis and treatment.

A person of any age can develop a parapharyngeal abscess, but it is most commonly seen in children and adolescents 1. Immunocompromised adults are also at an increased risk 2.

Presentation is variable, the first symptoms of a parapharyngeal abscess are similar to those of uncomplicated acute pharyngitis or tonsiliits (fever, sore throat, nasal voice, dysphonia, cervical lymphadenopathy). Progression of the signs and symptoms is key as it pertains to inflammation and obstruction of the upper airways and/or gastrointestinal tract and there may be dysphagia, dyspnea, stridor, neck stiffness, drooling, trismus and/or chest pain.

Usually, parapharyngeal abscesses arise secondary to oropharyngeal infections that spread either by direct continuity or by lymphatic drainage:

When a parapharyngeal abscess is detected, treatment should commence immediately. It can usually be treated with broad-spectrum parenteral antibiotics and surgical drainage. Occasionally, small abscesses can be treated with IV antibiotics alone 1.

Parapharyngeal space infections are important causes of morbidity and mortality due to possible complications including 2:

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