A neck abscess is a collection of pus in the neck. Typically, an abscess is caused by an infection, and as the pus accumulates, the abscess will grow larger and form a mass. This can create other significant problems because uncommonly large neck abscesses can push on other structures in the neck, such as the throat and windpipe, and lead to problems swallowing and breathing.
There are many possible causes of a abscess in the neck. An infection in the head or neck can lead to an abscess, as can an ear infection, the common cold, or a sinus infection. Another possible cause is tonsillitis, an inflammation of the tonsils. If any of these infections extends into the tissues within the neck or throat, an abscess may form.
A common type is a superficial neck abscess, which is typically located right under the skin. It may be caused by an infection in the throat, swollen lymph nodes, or a cold. The most common symptom is an irritated throat, which may appear sore, red, and swollen. Other symptoms can include a fever, chills, stiffness and pain in the neck, and overall feeling unwell.
A deep neck abscess is commonly located near muscles and blood vessels deep in the neck. All of the symptoms of a superficial abscess may be present with this type, with the addition of more severe neck pain, difficulty swallowing, and neck swelling. If the abscess is particularly large, it could press on the airway and cause breathing problems. Pressure from a large abscess in the neck can also damage nerves in the neck, which may affect movement of the vocal cords.
Antibiotics are typically the first line of defense against an abscess. If antibiotics fail to cure the infection, an abscess drainage will be necessary, which generally means having a surgical incision made to drain the pus from the neck. From this drainage, the medical professional will be able to identify the specific cause of the infection by examining the pus under a microscope. After the exact cause is found, a more specific type of antibiotic will be prescribed as a follow-up treatment.
An individual with a neck abscess should have it evaluated by a healthcare professional as soon as it is discovered. Typically, the medical professional will order blood tests and do a throat culture to gain information on the infection present. The examination may also include more advanced diagnostic tests, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan. This will enable a more detailed look at the abscess and will be able to differentiate an abscess from a cyst or tumor. In some incidences, an individual may be referred to an otolaryngologists or ear, nose, and throat doctor to treat a very large or complex abscess.