Skip navigation
Link to Back issues listing | Back Issue Listing with content Index | Subject Index

Bleeding after tonsillectomy


Where you live in the world, and what type of health service you have, will determine whether you have tonsillectomy as a day case, or have a week in hospital. A week in hospital used to be the norm, of course, and one reason for the stay was the risk of a bleed after the operation. What determines the stay is when bleeding occurs. A new meta-analysis provides an insight [1].


A systematic review sought results of adult and paediatric tonsillectomy series that provided both the numbers of bleeding events and when they occurred. Adenoidectomies, and adenoid bleeds from adenotonsillectomies, were excluded. Bleeding events were as defined by the original authors, so included more and less serious bleeding events. The incidence of bleeding was then assessed overall for the first eight hours after operation, between eight and 24 hours, and after 24 hours.


Sixteen studies provided the required data, with 27,305 patients. Studies varied in size from 94 to almost 7,000 patients. Seven included only day cases, and four were a mix of day case and longer postoperative stays. All of the studies provided information on bleeding during the first 24 hours, and 11 for periods longer than 24 hours.

In the first eight hours after operation there were 343 bleeds, a rate of 1.3%. In the period between eight and 24 hours there were 32 bleeds, a rate of 0.12%. There was a clear decay in the number of bleeds during the first 24 hours, with most frequent occurrence in the first five hours, and with only sporadic bleeding after eight hours. Beyond 24 hours there were 398 bleeds, a rate of 1.8% (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Incidence rates of bleeding after tonsillectomy by time after the operation


The results of this analysis showed that most bleeding occurred early after operation, or after 24 hours. This does not support an argument for a mandatory overnight stay after tonsillectomy. It appears that 833 patients would need to be kept in overnight to identify one case of bleeding after eight hours and before next day discharge. There will always be good reasons why some patients should have at least an overnight stay, and some of these are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Exclusion criteria for day case tonsillectomy for individual patients where overnight stay may be more appropriate

Exclusion criteria for day case tonsillectomy
Medical problems
Severe asthma
Coagulation disorder
Hypersomnia/slees apnoea
Sickle cell disease
Other conditions where overnight stay may be required
Social reasons
No access to telephone
No access to car
Only one adult at home if other children in house

The paper argues that with about 90,000 tonsillectomies a year, and with an overnight bed costing about £300, the potential saving by moving from complete overnight stays to complete day case surgery is of the order of £20-30 million for the NHS in the UK if the beds were closed or used for something else. There are also implications here about discharge before eight hours.

An interesting example, this, of how systematic review and meta-analysis can impact directly on the design and purchasing of services. It goes to the heart of what is appropriate in service design on the one hand, and what is best for individual patients on the other. Good evidence trumps dogma every time.


  1. 1 AM Bennett et al. Meta-analysis of the timing of haemorrhage after tonsillectomy: an important factor in determining the safety of performing tonsillectomy as a day case procedure. Clinical Otolaryngology 2005 30:418-423.

previous story