To drain or not to drain - management of pediatric deep neck abscesses: a case-control study

Danny K C Wong, Colin Brown, Nikki Mills, Patrick Spielmann, Michel Neeff
International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology 2012, 76 (12): 1810-3

UNLABELLED: Optimal management of deep neck abscesses has been the subject of debate for more than a century: surgical drainage has been the mainstay of treatment, but recently many centres have reported successful non-operative management in selected cases.

OBJECTIVES: Our objective was to review the management of deep neck abscesses in our institution and to identify characteristics that would predict successful non-operative management.

METHODS: A retrospective chart review from January 2001 to August 2010 was performed. Children up to age fifteen years with a CT-confirmed diagnosis of retropharyngeal or parapharyngeal abscess were included. A case-control study of small deep space neck abscesses (≤ 25 mm maximal diameter) was performed, comparing antibiotic treatment alone with antibiotics plus abscess drainage.

RESULTS: 54 children met the inclusion criteria, of whom half had abscesses ≤ 25 mm diameter. Younger children within the group with smaller abscesses were more likely to need surgical drainage (p<0.05). Of 13 children requiring operative management, ten underwent a period of antibiotic treatment and observation prior to surgery, eight (80%) had fever beyond 48 h compared with three (23%) in the non-surgical group (p<0.01). 27 children had an abscess > 25 mm diameter on CT scan, four (15%) of whom responded quickly to antibiotics and were managed non-operatively, while the rest underwent surgery. There were no significant differences between the surgical and non-surgical group characteristics with larger abscesses.

CONCLUSION: High dose intravenous antibiotics are an effective treatment for deep space neck abscesses and may obviate the need for surgical drainage, particularly in smaller abscesses. Children who do not respond quickly to antibiotics are more likely to require surgery to achieve resolution. Children with larger abscesses may respond to antibiotic therapy alone but should be closely observed. A trial of high dose intravenous antibiotics in stable children with close observation is warranted as first line treatment, especially for small deep space neck abscesses.

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