Health knowledge made personal
Join this community!
› Share page:
Search posts:

Trick of the Trade: Peritonsillar abscess needle aspiration

Posted Oct 13 2009 10:07pm 1 Comment
How do you drain a peritonsillar abscess?

When evaluating a patient with a sore throat and “hot potato voice,” peritonsillar abscess (PTA) is at the top of the differential diagnosis list. As with all abscesses, the definitive treatment involves drainage of pus. This can be done either by incision and drainage or, more commonly, by needle aspiration.

Unlike surface abscesses on the skin, there are unique challenges for accessing the PTA.
  • The peritonsillar area is not as easily accessed as the skin, and, for this reason, is often poorly lit.
  • Patients with PTAs often have associated trismus which make it harder for the practitioner to even see, much less aspirate, the PTA.
  • Vascular structures, such as the carotid artery, lie in close proximity to the peritonsillar space and add a level of complexity to the procedure.
Trick of the trade: Shed some light on the situation.
Visualization is key when aspirating a PTA. Appropriate visualization of the pharynx is made possible by abundant lighting with adequate exposure. A laryngoscope with a curved blade provides both of those elements. With the patient sitting upright and after appropriate anesthesia, gently insert the blade into the patient’s mouth, as far posteriorly as tolerated without gagging. The laryngoscope blade should be inserted, similar to the technique for endotracheal intubation.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Hagop Afarian (Fresno)

A variation on this theme is to use a video laryngoscope in lieu of a direct laryngoscope when teaching this procedure to others. It can both be used to demonstrate the procedure, and to oversee and guide the learner’s technique. Projecting the procedure on a digital screen allows multiple providers to view the pharynx, instead of just the person directly in front of the patient.

Another variation on this theme is actually to have a cooperative patient control the laryngoscope handle. Patients often can provide a great view when they pull their own tongue inferiorly. They can pull without triggering their gag reflex.

Trick of the trade: Use a long spinal needle.
Needle aspiration of a PTA can be done with a 1.5 inch needle on a syringe. However, the barrel of the syringe often can obscure the practitioner's line of sight, as shown in this photo. To optimize the view, use a 3.5 inch spinal needle so that the syringe remains outside of the patient's mouth.

Trick of the trade: When using a spinal needle, always use protection.
A worrisome concern with using a 3.5 inch spinal needle for PTA drainage is advancing the needle too deeply and inadvertently puncturing the carotid artery. A trick to help prevent this is to use a protective guide. Trim the needle’s plastic sheath so that when replaced, only 1.5 cm of the needle tip is exposed. When using the needle to aspirate the abscess, the sheath prevents the needle from over-advancing beyond 1.5 cm.

Thanks to Dr. Hagop Afarian (Fresno), who co-authored this topic with me in a recent ACEP News Tricks of the Trade column!
Comments (1)
Sort by: Newest first | Oldest first


 I believe I have quinsy. I am 30 years old and have had a tonsilectomy about 6 years ago. I get chronic infections in my throat post surgery. I have gone to see an ENT, but he acted as if he had never seen it before (said it wasn't typical and didn't know what it was). I have been searching on the internet and have discovered the throat infection called quinsy. I get inflammation on one side of my throat about four to six times out of the year. It is followed by an ear ache and eventually a bulge that forms on my soft palate. I pressed on the bulge and gross green puss comes out! Gross! I don't know what to do and it is freaking me out. I work for a dentist so when this happens I have her prescribe me antibiotics. It helps, but it always comes back. Can someone give me a piece of mind. The ENT I went to told me to get a waterpik to clean it out. No way! I just want this to go away. Any advice from any doctors out there that know more about this.



Post a comment
Write a comment: