Most retropharyngeal abscesses, including iatrogenic cases, are caused by trauma. Nontraumatic retropharyngeal abscesses usually occur secondary to infection of the retropharyngeal lymph nodes. Because these particular nodes usually disappear by the age of 4 or 5 years, a nontraumatic retropharyngeal abscess in an adult is extremely rare. When they do occur in adults, they are generally seen in immunocompromised patients and in intravenous drug abusers. Left untreated, a retropharyngeal abscess can lead to rare and fatal complications such as cervical osteomyelitis, epidural abscess, and discitis. Retropharyngeal abscesses can be diagnosed with a thorough history of risk factors, an examination for neurologic deficits, and radiologic studies, particularly magnetic resonance imaging. Treatment involves intravenous antibiotic therapy and surgical drainage. During follow-up, it is important to closely monitor the results of clinical neurologic examinations and weekly determinations of the C-reactive protein level and erythrocyte sedimentation rate in order to assess the response to therapy. We report 4 cases of nontraumatic retropharyngeal abscess complicated by cervical osteomyelitis and epidural abscess that were seen in New Orleans within 3 years of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005.
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