The accuracy of lateral X-ray and computed tomography in diagnosis of paediatric retropharyngeal abscess: a systematic review
Original Article

The accuracy of lateral X-ray and computed tomography in diagnosis of paediatric retropharyngeal abscess: a systematic review

Ramanan Daniel1, Patrick Stokes2, Kaman Dhillon3, Patrick Walsh4

1Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Alfred Health, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; 2Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, University Hospital Geelong, Geelong, Victoria, Australia; 3Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Box Hill Hospital, Box Hill, Victoria, 3128, Australia; 4Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Western Health, Victoria 3011, Australia

Contributions: (I) Conception and design: R Daniel, P Stokes; (II) Administrative support: R Daniel, P Stokes; (III) Provision of study materials or patients: R Daniel, P Stokes; (IV) Collection and assembly of data: R Daniel, P Stokes; (V) Data analysis and interpretation: R Daniel, P Stokes, K Dhillon; (VI) Manuscript writing: All authors; (VII) Final approval of manuscript: All authors.

Correspondence to: Dr Ramanan Daniel. Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Alfred Health, 55 Commercial Road, Melbourne, 3004, Victoria, Australia. Email:

Background: A systematic review was performed analysing the accuracy of lateral radiograph (XR) and computed tomography (CT) in the diagnosis of paediatric retropharyngeal abscess (RPA). The primary outcome measurement was the sensitivity, specificity, negative predictive value (NPV) and positive predictive value (PPV) of these two modalities compared to the operative findings.

Methods: A systematic search was performed using the PubMed, MEDLINE and EMBASE databases following the Preferred Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines. Studies that investigated and compared XR and/or CT findings with operative findings in paediatric RPA were included for analysis.

Results: Twelve studies met final defined criteria. A large discrepancy in the accuracy of XR was noted in six papers. The ten studies that analysed CT showed far less variance. CT was a sensitive test with a strong NPV although was less specific with a weaker PPV.

Conclusions: There is no consensus regarding XR in the diagnosis of paediatric RPA. No recent literature exists to support its use. The data that does exist is contradictory and is at risk of substantial bias. The literature is more recent and uniform on the merit of CT, acknowledging it as a sensitive diagnostic test that provides helpful anatomical and operative information. However, CT has a weak specificity (and PPV) and given that a proportion of RPAs respond to medical management alone, early ENT consultation is recommended. This will help guide initial medical management and imaging if needed, with CT as the primary modality choice.

Keywords: Child; diagnostic tests; sensitivity and specificity; radiation; MEDLINE

Received: 13 December 2019; Accepted: 15 February 2020; Published online: 24 April 2020.

doi: 10.21037/ajo.2020.03.02


Retropharyngeal abscess (RPA) is an uncommon but potentially life-threatening paediatric emergency presentation. Prompt clinical suspicion, investigations and management are required to mitigate complications that can range from mediastinitis to acute airway compromise (1-3). Adjunct diagnostic modalities include lateral radiograph (XR) and computed tomography (CT). Despite substantial radiological advancements over several decades, the accuracy and indication for each modality in the workup of RPA remains somewhat unclear with no consensus guidelines within the literature. Certainly, XR was the initial diagnostic tool of choice as a non-invasive, widely available, cheap and sensitive investigation (4-6). However, recent literature has challenged the accuracy and merit of the XR given the availability of more advanced diagnostic aids (7-9). CT provides three-dimensional (3D) anatomical information that may be more sensitive in detecting RPA and help in surgical planning and performance (6,10-12). However, CT lacks specificity (6,7,13), exposes children to radiation (14,15) and therefore requires careful consideration when being used in the diagnosis of paediatric RPA. To add to the confusion, several authors suggest that certain RPAs may respond to intravenous antibiotics alone (without operative drainage), and therefore it may be suitable to adopt a ‘watch and wait’ approach that avoids any imaging investigations unless clinical deterioration dictates a need (6,10). As it stands, there are no consensus guidelines or algorithm for the investigation and management of RPA.

This systematic review was designed to address some of these questions, specifically the utility (if any) and accuracy of XR and CT in the investigation and management of paediatric RPA. We present the following article in accordance with the PRISMA reporting checklist (available at


Eligibility criteria

Inclusion and exclusion criteria were predefined. The final selection included English language, human studies with patients younger than 18 years of age that analysed either CT or XR in paediatric RPA comparing findings to operative findings. Articles analysing but not separating parapharyngeal/other deep neck space abscesses from RPA were excluded. Despite having a close anatomical/clinical relationship, these entities were not included as they may alter the perceived sensitivity, specificity and accuracy of the XR that measures retropharyngeal width.

Diagnostic modalities

Any articles that compared XR and/or CT findings to intraoperative outcomes were included for analysis. Ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), endoscopy, fluoroscopy or any other forms of imaging were deemed outside the scope of this review.

Outcome measures

The primary outcome was measured as the efficacy of XR and CT in predicting intraoperative pus. This was either defined as sensitivity, specificity, PPV and/or NPV.

Other demographic factors gathered included clinical findings, laboratory findings, microbiological isolate, type of management (medical or surgical), length of in-hospital stay and complications (Table 1).

Table 1

Demographic data

Study, y Clinical findings Laboratory Bacterial Medical management Surgical management
LOS (days) Complications LOS (days) Complications
Martin et al., 2014 Fever, neck pain, torticollis Leukocytosis Streptococcus NR NR NR NR
Nazir et al., 2013 Fever, neck pain, dysphagia, odynophagia NR Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Klebsiella NR Failed antibiotic treatment [3] NR Recurrence [2]
Hoffman et al., 2011 Fever, pain, neck stiffness Leukocytosis Streptococcus 4.45 Failed antibiotic treatment [8] 4.75 Recurrence [9]
Pharisa et al., 2009 Fever, neck swelling, limited neck movement NR NR NR NR NR NR
Craig et al., 2004 Neck pain, fever, odynophagia NR Streptococcus 3.2 Nil 5.1 Nil
Stone et al., 1999 NR NR N/A NR NR NR Recurrence [2]
Boucher et al., 1999 NR NR N/A NR NR NR NR
Choi et al., 1997 NR NR N/A NR NR NR NR
Ravindranath et al., 1993 NR NR Streptococcus NR NR NR NR
Glasier et al., 1992 NR NR N/A NR NR NR NR
Coulthard et al., 1991 Fever, stridor, neck swelling NR Staphylococcus NR NR NR Recurrence [6]
Yeoh et al., 1985 Neck stiffness, feeding difficulties, drooling, cervical swelling, fever, stridor NR Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Klebsiella NR NR NR Recurrence [5]

NR, not recorded; LOS, length of stay.

Search strategy

A systematic search was performed using the PubMed, MEDLINE and EMBASE databases. The PubMed database was searched from inception until February 10, 2019; EMBASE was searched from 1974 to February 10, 2019, and MEDLINE was searched from 1946 to February 10, 2019 using Ovid SP. Bibliographies of studies selected for full-text analysis were cross referenced for any additional missing studies. An electronic search strategy was designed to identify all studies comparing lateral XR, CT and intraoperative findings in paediatric RPA.

Relevant studies were found using search terms “retropharyngeal abscess”, “computed tomography”, “CT”, “x-ray”, “xray”, “radiograph” and “radiography”.

Data collection and analysis

Two unblinded authors (R Daniel, P Stokes) reviewed all titles, abstracts, read full-text articles and compared them with predetermined inclusion criteria. Studies that met the inclusion criteria had the relevant data extracted using a standardised data form. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were followed for study selection (Figure 1). The review authors conducted the data extraction and assessed the quality of methodology of each included trial. Considered factors were:

  • Number of participants;
  • Age of participants;
  • Sociodemographic data;
  • Characteristics of study;
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria;
  • Risk of bias;
  • Diagnostic criteria;
  • Timing of investigations and operative management;
  • Treatment:
    • Intravenous antibiotic administration.
    • Operative drainage.
  • Follow up period;
  • Adverse effects.
Figure 1 The preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses flow diagram. From: Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, et al. Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: The PRISMA statement. PLoS Med 2009;6:e1000097.

Risk of bias

Risk of bias for cohort studies was assessed in accordance with the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale (16).


Search strategy

A total of 617 references were identified through the applied search strategy. First level screening removed 574 studies (duplicates, non-English, clearly irrelevant scope) leaving 43 references for full text consideration. A further 31 publications were excluded because they did not meet the predefined inclusion criteria. Twelve articles were chosen for final review (Table 2). Of these included papers that compared radiological findings to operative findings in paediatric RPA, six analysed CT, one analysed XR, and five analysed a combination of XR and CT.

Table 2

Included studies for review and demographics

Study, y Method Total participants XR participants CT participants Age (median, mean or range) Sex (male:female ratio) Co-morbidities recorded
Martin et al., 2014 Retrospective 18 0 18 3.2 years old (median) 1.6:1 NR
Nazir et al., 2013 Prospective 57 57 57 0–15 years old (range) 1.7:1 NR
Hoffman et al., 2011 Retrospective 101 0 99 4.3 years old (mean) 2:1 Yes
Pharisa et al., 2009 Retrospective 3 1 3 9 years old (median) 1.8:1 NR
Craig et al., 2004 Retrospective 64 43 64 3 years old (mean) NR NR
Stone et al., 1999 Retrospective 34 0 34 3 months – 9 years old (range) NR NR
Boucher et al., 1999 Retrospective 25 24 15 0–15 years old (range) NR Yes
Choi et al., 1997 Retrospective 12 0 12 3.4 years old (mean) 1.8:1 NR
Ravindranath et al., 1993 Retrospective 10 10 10 4 months – 12 years old (range) 1.5:1 NR
Glasier et al., 1992 Retrospective 11 11 10 1–11 years old (range) 1.8:1 NR
Coulthard et al., 1991 Retrospective 31 24 0 6 days – 12 years old (range) 1.2:1 Yes
Yeoh et al., 1985 Retrospective 16 9 0 Less than 6 years old (range) 2.8:1 NR

NR, not recorded.


The age of children included in this review ranged from 4 months (12) to 15 years (6,17), with a male predominance documented in all papers that recorded sex (4,5,8,9,11,12,17). The comorbidities of children were infrequently documented (6,8) (Table 2).

The most common clinical features of paediatric RPA were neck pain, fever and swallowing problems (4,7-9,17), with the most common microbiological isolates being gram positive cocci (streptococcus and staphylococcus species) (4,7,8,10,12,17,18) (Table 1).


A lateral neck radiograph was used as standard imaging for XR in all studies (4-6,12,17). The most common radiological features for diagnosis of RPA was the width of retropharyngeal soft tissue (4-6,12,17). Retropharyngeal soft tissue was compared to adjacent vertebral bodies based off historical parameters (19) in three papers (4,5,12). The specific definition of abnormal varied from 50 (17) to 200 percent (4) the width of the adjacent vertebral body, with one paper not defining an abnormal limit (6). Additional findings suspicious for abscess included air fluid levels (4,17), gas or visible pre-vertebral shadow (4,6,17) and straightening of normal cervical lordosis (17).

One of the pitfalls found in this study is the lack of information and homogeneity in regards to the imaging equipment and technique. Only Ravindranath et al. (12) commented on the type of scanner used (General Electronic Healthcare 8800), adding to potential variability in outcomes. Only Glassier et al. (5) and Ravindranath et al. (12) noted the use of 5 mm interval slices and Choi stating 3 mm intervals in the majority of patients. No other studies commented on CT interval size. Four of the articles reviewed mention the use of contrast (5,11-13), with the remaining studies not reporting on whether contrast was used or not.

The landmark study by Wholey et al. (19) and Seid et al. (20) were referenced in certain studies to state the well established radiological definitions for RPA when using lateral XR (4,6,13). The strongest predictive sign stated by the Boucher et al. (6) study was retropharyngeal air, with all patients positive for RPA with this finding.

Six studies described CT characteristics of RPA, correlating a rim enhancing lesion with low attenuation centrally (5,6,8,10,13). However, Stone et al. (13) states these findings are predictive but not definitive for RPA. To differentiate an abscess from phlegmon, it is shown a phlegmon will show “obliteration of fat planes and oedema of the soft tissues” (13). Craig et al. (10) referenced Kirse and Roberson (21) who found a higher sensitivity if there was scalloping of the abscess wall. Hoffman et al. (8) established that the greatest sensitivity and specificity were rim enhancement and that a core density less than 32 Hounsfield units best correlates with a true RPA (8). Eight of the nine studies utilising CT mention the significant diagnostic and prognostic value of CT (5,6,8,10-13,17), however, four mention the lack of clear objective radiological criteria (5,8,10,13).

Study outcomes

All studies compared radiological findings with intraoperative pus as the gold standard. The sensitivity and specificity of XR ranged from 0 (12) to 100 percent (4-6) (Table 3). CT sensitivity ranged from 69 (8) to 100 percent (5,6,9,11,12) with a more variable specificity of 45 (6) to 100 percent (8,12) (Table 3). Overall, CT had a less variable sensitivity, specificity, PPV and NPV compared to XR (Table 3). In addition, one paper noted performance of surgery was significantly enhanced by CT (10) whilst three papers overtly noted CT to be helpful for surgical planning (6,11,12).

Table 3

CT and XR sensitivity, specificity, PPV and NPV percentages

Study, y CT XR
Sensitivity (%) Specificity (%) PPV (%) NPV (%) Sensitivity (%) Specificity (%) PPV (%) NPV (%)
Martin et al., 2014 92 50 79 75 NR NR NR NR
Nazir et al., 2013 NR NR 83 NR NR NR 70 NR
Hoffman et al., 2011 69 100 NR NR NR NR NR NR
Pharisa et al., 2009 100 NR 67 NR NR NR NR NR
Craig et al., 2004 NR NR NR NR NR NR NR NR
Stone et al., 1999 81 50 84 44 NR NR NR NR
Boucher et al., 1999 100 45 40 100 80 100 100 94
Choi et al., 1997 100 81 75 100 NR NR NR NR
Ravindranath et al., 1993 100 100 100 100 0 0 0 0
Glasier et al., 1992 100 50 30 NR 100 NR 27 NR
Coulthard et al., 1991 NR NR NR NR 88 NR NR NR
Yeoh et al., 1985 NR 100 NR NR 100 NR 100 NR

NR, not recorded.

Risk of bias

Eleven of the included studies were retrospective case series. The Newcastle-Ottawa Scale was applied to all included papers, deeming the majority to be low to poor quality (Table 1). Duration of symptoms at the time of presentation was infrequently reported (4,8,17), as was documentation regarding prehospital treatment (4,10,13,17). The time from imaging to operative drainage was recorded in two papers (12,13). Seven articles had historical imaging reviewed by a radiologist (5-7,10-13). The radiologist was blinded in two studies (7,11).


Historically XR was seen as the gold standard for diagnosing paediatric RPAs (4-6). XR is appealing as it is a quick and easy test to perform, widely accessible and therefore is often seen as an ideal ‘screening test’. The landmark papers of Wholey et al. (19) and Seid et al. (20) defined the anatomical measurements for normal retropharyngeal width in the paediatric population. These papers also noted the importance of attaining a proper lateral neck radiograph and correct interpretation. False positives arise for a plethora of reasons including incorrect rotation, neck extension and/or respiratory phase as well as normal anatomical variance of cervical lordosis. This combined with an unwell, agitated child make the lateral XR prone to error (10,12).

Despite this, high sensitivity and specificity rates were documented within these studies: Yeoh et al. stated 100 percent sensitivity; Glasier et al. stated 100 percent sensitivity; Boucher et al. stated 80 percent sensitivity and 100 percent specificity; Coulthard et al. stated 88 percent sensitivity (Table 3). The authors therefore recommended XR as the ideal imaging modality for diagnosis. However, in the current systematic review, the lateral XR showed significant variance from 0 to 100 percent highlighting the inherent issue with this test. Papers that showed higher sensitivity and specificity had populations that tended to be severely unwell. Complication rates were high, with documentation of abscesses ‘self-discharging’ in emergency departments, tracheostomy insertion and two deaths (5,6,18) all suggestive of severe clinical presentation. In one paper (4), sensitivity was improved when retropharyngeal width was twice that of the adjacent cervical vertebra [i.e., twice as wide as what was originally deemed abnormal by Wholey et al. (19)] further emphasizing how large these abscesses were. It is difficult to conclude this as the most sensitive XR characteristic given most studies stated different opinions in relation to vertebral width. Compounding this, certain papers showed both false positive and false negative results (10,12).

In clinical practice, a combination of clinical features and certain XR characteristics may increase the diagnostic sensitivity, however there was not sufficient data in any paper correlating these two factors to determine this. With these factors in mind, it is difficult to validate the utility of such a diagnostic test in the screening of paediatric RPA.

CT remains the gold standard for diagnosis of paediatric RPA but is not without its pitfalls. Technological advances over several decades have allowed CT to become an efficient, accessible and economic diagnostic modality. It is intuitive that 3D anatomical imaging would outperform two-dimensional (2D) radiography for diagnostic accuracy (5,6,9,11,12), operative planning (guiding intraoral or transcervical approaches) and overall surgical performance (6,10-12). Although CT remains a highly sensitive diagnostic modality being able to delineate radiological cellulitis from an abscess (5,6,9,11,12), its variable specificity (6,7,13) may lend itself to unnecessary operations. Certain radiological features such as size of abscess, scalloped margins and rim enhancement may improve specificity and the likelihood of positive findings of pus at the time of surgery (21) and certainly some clinical practice guidelines agree with this (22). Interestingly, none of the included papers truly account for the natural history of suppuration and the bearing that time has on radiological and operative findings. Naturally, lymph nodes will take time to suppurate and a CT performed too early may over call a positive diagnosis (6); yet if clinical suspicion is high, investigations should not be unnecessarily delayed for this potentially life threatening entity. The severity and duration of a child’s symptoms in addition to the timing of antibiotic administration, diagnostic imaging and surgery are likely to affect intraoperative findings. The wary clinician should consider all these factors prior to ordering radiology to help better delineate which children will likely require operative management, and which children will respond to medical management alone thus avoiding unnecessary imaging and radiation exposure.

This review highlights several limitations inherent within the analysed literature. Firstly, without submitting all children with clinical suspicion of RPA to imaging (namely CT) and operative drainage, it is impossible to deduce true sensitivity and specificity and to do so would carry serious ethical, clinical and economic implications. With the overall lack of data (Table 3) and inability of comparison between each study patient group and their interventions, there was not sufficient information to perform a meta-analysis. A modified measurement of accuracy (i.e., CT in predicting pus at the time of surgery) based on retrospective data remains problematic, as there will still be a proportion of children whom respond to intravenous antibiotics that have radiological evidence of an RPA (10,11). Secondly, papers rarely controlled or accounted for confounding variables including the severity of clinical presentation, timing of antibiotic administration and imaging and the subsequent timeframe to theatre, all of which have a significant bearing on the likelihood of pus at the time of surgical drainage. Finally, the current data is largely taken from small retrospective case series that are underpowered. Several of the included studies suffered from selection and recall bias, and given that authors and/or additional assessors (radiologists) were often not blinded to outcomes, the veracity of their findings could be questioned. Furthermore, no consensus guidelines exist for the diagnosis and management of paediatric RPA and therefore the timing of investigations and management may vary depending on clinician preference which makes quantitative analysis difficult.


Current data validates CT as the gold standard in the diagnosis of RPA, but remains far from a perfect test. Lateral XR may be useful if stringent reporting criteria were developed and adhered to but it cannot guide surgical management. The informed clinician should understand the pitfalls associated with radiology in the diagnosis of paediatric RPA, and be aware of clinical findings that make CT more likely to be a useful diagnostic adjunct. The authors propose early ENT consultation to guide initial medical management. If initial clinical signs of severity are high or are worsening then the recommended primary imaging modality is CT. This will ultimately guide surgical management. Ideally larger longitudinal studies that account for the clinical severity (at the time of presentation), timing of investigations and time to surgery may help better inform consensus guidelines/protocols that can be widely applied to emergency, paediatric and ENT surgeons alike for the diagnostic and treatment pathway for paediatric RPA.


Funding: None.


Reporting Checklist: The authors have completed the PRISMA reporting checklist. Available at

Conflicts of Interest: All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form (available at The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Ethical Statement: The authors are accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Open Access Statement: This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), which permits the non-commercial replication and distribution of the article with the strict proviso that no changes or edits are made and the original work is properly cited (including links to both the formal publication through the relevant DOI and the license). See:


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doi: 10.21037/ajo.2020.03.02
Cite this article as: Daniel R, Stokes P, Dhillon K, Walsh P. The accuracy of lateral X-ray and computed tomography in diagnosis of paediatric retropharyngeal abscess: a systematic review. Aust J Otolaryngol 2020;3:12.

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