Case # 7: A Case of Asymmetry

A 22 year old male presents to the emergency department with a sore throat for 1 week. The pain is predominately on the left side and is associated with difficulty opening his mouth and fever. He was placed on amoxicillin 3 days ago but notes that his symptoms have progressed. He appears uncomfortable.

Vitals: T 101.4 HR 105 BP 132/81  RR 14 O2 98% on RA

A bedside ultrasound is performed, what is the next best step in management?


Answer and Learning Point


Incision and drainage. The patient presents with lateralizing pharyngitis symptoms associated with fever and trismus concerning for peritonsillar abscess (PTA). The ultrasound clip demonstrates a well circumscribed, hypoechoic fluid collection abutting the left tonsil confirming this diagnosis (see color overlay below).

Previously, physicians relied solely on the physical exam findings of peritonsillar swelling and uvular deviation to make the diagnosis of PTA. However, this approach lacks accuracy, with studies showing a sensitivity and specificity of 75% and 50% respectively [1]. This uncertainty leads to increased CT utilization, repeat drainage attempts and ENT consultation. Intraoral ultrasound is a novel technique that can be used by emergency physicians (EP), both for diagnosis and drainage of PTA. A recent randomized control trial found the use of intraoral ultrasound (vs. traditional landmark technique) to be significantly more reliable for differentiating between PTA and peritonsillar cellulitis. Additionally, this study also demonstrated increased success in PTA drainage by EPs with the use of intraoral ultrasound guidance [2].

Data from Costantino et al

Learning Points

    • An endocavitary probe should be used when PTA is suspected to differentiated between PTA and peritonsillar cellulitis; and assist with drainage if necessary.
    • If an endocavitary probe is not available, or if the patient cannot open their mouth wide enough to pass the probe, an alternative approach, known as the telescopic submandibular approach can also be used and is explained here.
    • When using ultrasound, the distance from the oral mucosa to the center of the PTA should be measure. The plastic sheath of an 18-gauge needle (preferably a spinal needle to allow the barrel of the syringe to be outside of the patients mouth) should be cut to this length to prevent puncturing any deeper structures during drainage.


This post was written by Michael Macias, MD, Ultrasound Fellow at UCSD.


    1. Scott PM, e. (2017). Diagnosis of peritonsillar infections: a prospective study of ultrasound, computerized tomography and clinical diagnosis. - PubMed - NCBI . Retrieved 2 October 2017, from
    2. Costantino TG, e. (2017). Randomized trial comparing intraoral ultrasound to landmark-based needle aspiration in patients with suspected peritonsillar abscess. - PubMed - NCBI . Retrieved 2 October 2017, from

Case # 3: Under Your Skin

A 52 year old male with presents with 4 days of painful swelling and redness to his middle right thigh. Physical exam shows a 3 cm area of erythema that is tender to touch. He denies fever and trauma to the area. A bedside ultrasound is performed as seen below. What is the next step in management?

Vitals: HR 82 BP 110/72 RR 14 O2 98 (28)

Answer and Learning Point


Incision and drainage. The image above demonstrates a well circumscribed fluid collection within the soft tissue,  without evidence of surrounding cellulitis. The above abscess was incised with immediate release of a large volume of purulent material. The patient did well.

Learning Point

    • Ultrasound is an excellent adjunct to the physical exam in the evaluation of soft tissue infections. It improves accuracy in the diagnosis of superficial abscesses and has been shown to change management in up to 50% of emergency department cases of clinical cellulitis [1,2].
    • The ultrasound image above is atypical for an abscess given the iso-echoic texture appreciated in the fluid and is easily missed if the operator is not aware of this unusual finding. Most abscesses will appear as a hypoechoic fluid collection, however occasionally they may have increased internal echoes which can lead to false negative ultrasound results.
    • This can be avoided by applying gentle pressure to the area of the suspected cellulitis/abscess to evaluate for the "swirl sign" which is indicative of fluid movement within the abscess cavity [Figures 1&2].
    • This can be distinguished from the common pattern appreciated in cellulitis known as "cobblestoning" which indicates increased subcutaneous fluid.
Figure 1: Soft tissue ultrasound demonstrating swirling of iso-echoic fluid collection consistent with abscess. Image courtesy of UOTW.
Figure 2: Additional soft tissue ultrasound demonstrating the "swirl sign." Image courtesy of UOTW.


 Tayal VS, e. (2017). The effect of soft-tissue ultrasound on the management of cellulitis in the emergency department.

Squire BT, e. (2017). ABSCESS: applied bedside sonography for convenient evaluation of superficial soft tissue infections.

UOTW: Case 66