What Are the Common Causes of Pus in the Throat?

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  • Originally Written By: J. Beam
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Pus in the throat is almost always a sign of some type of infection. Abscesses on or around the tonsils are some of the most common causes, as are bacterial build-ups on the pharynx. These can develop for a couple of reasons, including respiratory infections, inflammation, and conditions like meningitis. Medical experts can usually detect pus in the throat pretty quickly through a visual exam or by feeling swelling in a person’s lymph nodes. Most of the time the condition can be alleviated with antibiotics, though a lot of this depends on the underlying diagnosis. Surgery and draining is sometimes required.

Why Pus Accumulates

Pus in the throat is usually considered a complication or secondary symptom of something else, which is often referred to as the “primary problem.” In other words, it doesn’t usually just happen all on its own. Once pus appears, it’s usually a sign that an infection elsewhere has gotten really bad and is defeating the body’s ability to fight it off.


Tonsillitis, strep throat, meningitis, and basically any type of respiratory infection can lead to pus, especially if the condition is left untreated or is only partially treated. This is common when people are taking medications to which their specific bacteria don’t respond, or when they don’t finish a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics usually have to be taken as a complete course or regimen, even after symptoms have stopped; people who abandon their pills before the bottle is empty may feel better in the moment, but the bacteria may not actually be dead. It can sometimes come back stronger than before, creating pus as well as other symptoms, which is why experts usually tell people to take the whole prescription even if it seems like health has been restored.

Tonsil Problems

Pus accumulations are usually made up of fluid with bacteria, dead cells, and other matter inside. Medically speaking, these pools or collections are often referred to as “abscesses.” The two most common types of accumulated pus in the throat are peritonsillar abscesses and retropharyngeal abscesses. Peritonsillar abscesses occur on or behind a person’s tonsils, which sit near the top of the throat.

Tonsils are lymph organs that help the immune system fight unknown pathogens and bacteria that are swallowed. It’s relatively easy for these tissues to become inflamed and infected, though, whether through exposure or other weakness. Abscesses that form here are sometimes also known as “quincy,” and they’re most common in older children and adolescents — though almost anyone can develop them.

Other Throat Infections

A retropharyngeal abscess, by contrast, is an accumulation of pus behind the pharynx, an organ that acts as a sort of filter between the respiratory and digestive systems. This type of abscess is often a symptom of upper respiratory infections like colds that have persisted for a long time. They’re more common in young children or those whose lymph organs are especially large, but again, they can impact most people given the right circumstances.

Making a Diagnosis

Diagnosis of abscesses in the neck region typically begins with physical examination and recent medical history. Swollen lymph nodes are one of the most common symptoms; these happen because abscesses tend to push outwards on the surrounding tissues, and the throat is rich with many lymphatic systems. A visual examination of the throat often reveals abscesses, too, particularly when viewed with a medical expert’s specialized tools.

Patient symptoms also help in making the proper diagnosis. People with pus problems in their throats typically present with a fever, chills, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, facial swelling, and pain or tenderness around the jaw and throat. Further testing, such as throat cultures, bloodwork, or biopsy may be ordered by the treating physician.

Treatment Options

If an infection is caught early enough, an antibiotic regimen may be all that’s required. Large or unresponsive abscesses usually require lancing and draining in addition to antibiotic treatment, though. If the tonsils or other throat glands show chronic signs of infection or enlargement, it may be necessary to have these organs surgically removed to prevent future problems.

As a general rule, most infections of the throat are not severe. However, experts typically say that a sore throat lasting more than three days or accompanied by a fever, chills, inability to swallow, or other pain should be examined by a health care professional. The earlier an infection is caught, the less severe the secondary symptoms are likely to be, and the easier it will probably be to treat.


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Discuss this Article

Post 3

I can't even imagine having to have an abscess in my throat lanced to get rid of the pus. I've had to have that done elsewhere and it is incredibly painful, not to mention gross.

I guess that is one of the downfalls of modern medicine like painkillers. They can mask the fact that you've got something seriously wrong and let it continue long enough to become a real problem.

Post 2

@pleonasm - I hope that you are taking the medication properly and not stopping it as soon as you feel better. Sometimes people won't take the full course of antibiotics and then they get sick again later on because the bacteria are still lingering in their system.

Post 1

Whenever I catch strep throat I end up with white pus on my tonsils. I seem to get it every couple of years and it is really awful. I always feel like I'm too exhausted to move and my throat is so painful I can barely swallow.

The first time I had it I thought it was just a normal flu and didn't go to the doctor until it got really bad. It took a long time for the medication to work. Now I'm pretty paranoid about checking my throat if I'm starting to feel sick. Any signs at all of white or swelling and I go to the doctor straight away.

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