What is quinsy?

Quick Answer
An abscess usually forming in the peritonsillar space behind the tonsils.
Expert Answers
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Causes and Symptoms

Quinsy, also called peritonsillar abscess, is a rare disorder. Medical professionals most often diagnose the condition in young adults. Primarily after extreme tonsillitis, bacterial infections (usually streptococci) spread from one or both tonsils to adjacent tissues, which become pus-filled. In addition to the throat, the infection may cover the palate and extend to the lungs, potentially blocking the airway.

Patients develop a fever and tender throat glands. Some people experience chills. Because swollen tonsils shift and push the uvula aside, patients often are unable to open their mouths normally, a condition known as trismus, and swallowing is painful. Patients sometimes lean their heads in the direction of the abscess. Other symptoms include swelling of facial tissues, drooling, fatigue, earache, and headache. Some patients become hoarse and have foul breath.

Quinsy is often prevented because patients with tonsillitis are administered antibiotics and are monitored to stop infections from spreading. A person who has had tonsillitis and who develops symptoms of quinsy should consult health care professionals. Sore throats that do not heal with antibiotics or that become worse alert physicians to the possibility of quinsy.

Medical professionals evaluate patients for quinsy by examining the tonsils for swelling and abnormal reddening of the mouth, throat, and chest tissues. In some cases of quinsy, the tonsils may appear normal. Samples of aspirated abscess fluid are examined for bacteria. Ultrasound or computer imaging is used if patients cannot open their mouths.

Treatment and Therapy

Physicians are divided on the preferred treatment for quinsy. Surgical procedures involve draining pus from abscesses through incisions or needle aspiration. Studies have shown that incision drainage is effective at stopping quinsy and that needle aspiration is more likely to result in additional abscessing. Tonsillectomy specifically for quinsy is usually advised only if no other treatments are effective. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of patients undergoing treatment experience recurring quinsy.

Emergency surgery is necessary if quinsy affects breathing. Other possible complications include pneumonia, meningitis, heart inflammation (pericarditis), and fluid surrounding the lungs (pleural effusion). Rarely, quinsy patients develop endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the heart. Quinsy patients should seek medical care if they have chest pains, coughing, or breathing complications.

Perspective and Prospects

The word “quinsy” is based on references made by the ancient Greeks to abscessed throats. As early as the fourteenth century, medical literature included details about the peritonsillar space. The term “quinsy” was appropriated after that time to describe sore throats and tonsils. Modern physicians disproved claims that President George Washington died from quinsy, as contemporary sources had claimed. Since the 1980s, researchers have been evaluating the most effective treatments for quinsy. The Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine, first administered in 1987, has minimized quinsy occurrence.


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