Retropharyngeal abscess is a serious condition. Its rare occurrence, thus sharing symptoms with other processes, make it a diagnostic challenge for the clinician. Therefore, it is critical to make an early diagnosis to prevent delaying treatment and avoid complications.

To gain knowledge of the epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, the most commonly implicated microorganisms, the type of treatment used, morbidity and mortality of retropharyngeal abscesses at a tertiary institution over the last 25 years.

A retrospective study was conducted by reviewing medical records of all patients diagnosed with retropharyngeal abscess in a single centre between 1 January 1990 and 31 February 2016. Thirty-three patients were included in our study. Data such as personal history, present illness, diagnoses and treatment procedures were collected from the medical records.

The incidence during the years of study was 0.2 cases/100 000 inhabitants/year. Personal medical histories most often associated were alcoholism, smoking, diabetes and obesity. The most common aetiology found was impaction of a foreign body (especially fishbone). The most common presenting symptoms were odynophagia and neck pain accompanied by fever. Preventive tracheotomy was performed in the initial management of the patient in 9 cases (27%). The most frequent complication was descending necrotizing mediastinitis. Surgical drainage of the abscess was required in 27 patients (82%), especially with external approaches (17 cases). Two patients had sequelae: paralysis of unilateral vocal cord and Horner's syndrome. No mortality was observed in the patients of the study.

Retropharyngeal abscesses must be considered medical-surgical emergencies as they are likely to produce serious complications. We must pay attention to the warning symptoms such as odynophagia and cervical pain, associated or otherwise with dyspnoea, stridor, trismus, and neck stiffness. Advances in diagnostic and therapeutic procedures together with advances in critical care have been a key factor in improving the prognosis and mortality of these patients.

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