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Is Bleeding After a Tonsillectomy an Emergency?


Updated May 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Is Bleeding After a Tonsillectomy an Emergency?
Answer: Bleeding after a tonsillectomy is considered an emergency due to the close proximity of major arteries to the tonsils. Many people have their tonsils out every day in the United States and most do just fine, however, bleeding after tonsillectomies have caused serious complications including death. In response to a blog I wrote about a child who died from post-operative bleeding after a tonsillectomy I received this terrifying comment:

". . . I read this while looking on the internet. My 2 year old died the same way. . .hers was the lingual artery, a branch of the carotid. There was nothing I could do to stop the blood… I was helpless. People do need to understand that while this is a rare complication, it can happen."

Tonsillectomies are some of the most common surgeries in the world and while rare, bleeding after a tonsillectomy should be taken seriously. Signs of bleeding after a tonsillectomy include:

  • bright red blood coming from the mouth or nose
  • tasting blood in your mouth - a metallic taste
  • frequent swallowing
  • spitting out bright red blood
  • vomiting bright red or old blood - old blood is dark brown in color and is sometimes described as looking like coffee grounds

Bleeding after a tonsillectomy is most likely to occur right after surgery or about a week later when the scabs come off. If you suspect bleeding you may wish to look at the tonsil beds. You can do this using a flashlight and a tongue depressor or popcicle stick. Depending on how long it's been since you had surgery your tonsil beds should look white or dark brown. You can see a good picture of healthy tonsil beds after surgery on this website. If they are covered with bright red blood or you see bright red streaks running down the back of the throat you should seek medical attention immediately.

It is not uncommon to swallow blood during a tonsillectomy and then vomit old blood the day of surgery. If this happens you should try to visualize the tonsil beds. If you cannot see them, if you are uncomfortable doing this, if you have doubts, or if you see bright red blood contact your doctor right away. In most cases bleeding after a tonsillectomy can be stopped by cauterizing the tonsil beds but it is important to get emergency medical treatment If you begin bleeding after a tonsillectomy or suspect you might be bleeding.

ENTUSA,com.Adenotonsilectomyvvv Care After Surgery. Accessed July 13, 2010 from http://ent.about.com/od/entdisorderssu/a/tonsillectomy.htm

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