Utility of Soft Tissue Lateral Neck Radiographs in the Emergency Department: The 5-Year Experience of a Large Tertiary Care Pediatric Hospital

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Although retropharyngeal infection (RPI) may present with voice change, drooling, fever, and a toxic appearance, diagnosis based on symptoms alone is unreliable. As incidence is increasing in children and drug-resistant bacterial strains such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus are becoming more common, we decided to assess the clinical utility of lateral neck radiography.


The aim of this study was to review the experience of a large tertiary care pediatric emergency department (ED) in using lateral soft tissue neck radiographs in the diagnosis of suspected RPI.


A retrospective analysis of all lateral soft tissue neck radiograph reports from 2011 to 2015 in conjunction with a review of patients' charts to describe clinical and laboratory findings, disposition, and final diagnosis was performed. Patients aged 31 days to 18 years who presented to the ED with suspicion of RPI were included.


Review of 366 radiographic reports revealed that 46 were positive for RPI, 286 were negative, and 34 indeterminate. A final discharge diagnosis of RPI was made in 38 patients. Lateral neck radiographs had a sensitivity of 84.3% and a specificity of 93.7% for diagnosing RPI. In triage, most patients had no fever (264, 72.1%), stridor (356, 97%), drooling (348, 95%), or voice change (342, 93%). Surgical intervention occurred in 15 patients (39.5%) with a final diagnosis of RPI.


Lateral neck radiography is useful for diagnosis of RPI in the ED with good sensitivity and specificity. Additional imaging is to be considered at the behest of physician's clinical judgment.

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