What Is an Abscess and How Do You Treat It?

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD
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An abscess is a collection of pus that appears as a lump or swelling. It is a response to an infection that can form internally or on the skin and cause impairment and pain. Treatment involves draining the abscess. This article discusses abscesses, including their types, symptoms, and causes. It also explains the treatment, prevention, and complications of abscesses and answers some frequently asked questions.

Types of abscesses

A close-up of someone placing their hand over their skin.
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Abscesses can occur almost anywhere in the body, depending on where the infection or foreign object is. Abscesses may be internal or occur in the deeper layers of the skin, known as skin abscesses.

Examples of internal abscesses include:

Internal abscesses may be more difficult to diagnose because they may not cause visible symptoms. They can also require more intensive treatment if they are hard to reach or heal.

Abscess vs. boil

Although both refer to a collection of pus due to infection, boils and abscesses differ.

Boils are typically smaller than abscesses and usually occur due to infections in the outermost layers of tissue on the body.

Symptoms

Abscess symptoms can vary, depending on factors such as the location of the abscess and its underlying cause.

Skin abscess

Symptoms of a skin abscess can include:

  • a smooth lump or swelling under the skin
  • pain or tenderness
  • the feeling of warmth in the affected area
  • redness, flushing, or discoloration of the skin
  • a visible collection of pus or whitish fluid under the skin
  • fever or chills

See more symptoms and pictures of skin infections.

Internal abscess

Symptoms of an internal abscess can vary widely depending on where they occur.

General symptoms of an internal or organ abscess may include:

In addition, internal abscesses can cause symptoms that impact many parts of the body. For example, a tooth abscess may cause chewing difficulty, pain, and fever. Liver abscesses may cause jaundice.

When to seek medical help

Contact a doctor immediately if you suspect you have an abscess or infection or if a diagnosed abscess persists or causes concern.

Call 911 or seek emergency care for any of the following symptoms:

Causes

Bacterial infections are the most common cause of abscesses, particularly from staphylococcal bacteria.

However, other conditions and types of infections can cause an abscess, including:

  • viruses
  • fungi
  • parasites
  • foreign objects in the body

Infections and foreign bodies can cause white blood cells to fill tissues, producing pus and inflammation. Pus contains living and dead bacteria, white blood cells, and tissue remnants, which form an abscess.

Other factors that may contribute to an abscess infection include:

  • exposure to infectious agents such as bacteria or parasites
  • injury or wounds, including wounds from surgery
  • slow healing
  • improper hygiene or care of wounds
  • blocked glands or hair follicles
  • trapped foreign objects, such as:
    • surgical debris
    • debris in the skin, such as leftover glass from a cut
    • internal blockages
    • swallowed items
    • items inserted in the body

Treatments

Treatment for abscesses can depend on the location and severity of the infection.

Skin abscesses

Small skin abscesses may improve on their own, which can occur if they drain, shrink, or disappear without treatment.

Persistent or larger abscesses from a bacterial infection may require antibiotics.

Other treatment options include a clinician draining the abscess, known as incision and drainage. The wound would then be covered with a bandage.

Never try to puncture or squeeze a skin abscess because this can spread the infection.

You will also need to monitor the wound for any additional fluid or signs of reinfection.

Read more about self-care for skin infections.

Internal abscesses

The main treatment for internal abscesses also involves draining the abscess. This can be done by a surgeon using a fine needle and a small catheter tube to drain the fluid. You may need to wear this catheter for up to a week.

Surgery to wash out the fluid may be needed if your medical team believes needle drainage is ineffective.

Your doctor may also prescribe additional antibiotics or treatments if necessary.

Complications and outlook

The complications of an abscess can vary widely depending on the cause and location. Small, mild skin abscesses treated promptly may not cause complications other than a small scar.

However, other abscesses can affect underlying tissue or organ function and may cause long-term damage.

Complications of abscesses can include:

  • scarring
  • delayed healing
  • spread of infection
  • sepsis
  • nerve, tissue, or organ damage
  • functional impairments of organs
  • paralysis

Treatment and following your doctor’s instructions can help reduce the risk and impact of complications.

Prevention

It may not always be possible to prevent an abscess.

These approaches may help lower your chance of developing an abscess and reduce the risk of complications:

  • washing your hands and bathing regularly
  • avoiding sharing personal items, such as towels, razors, and cosmetics
  • avoiding nicks and cuts
  • washing wounds with soap and water and keeping them clean
  • following your treatment plan if you have underlying conditions
  • contacting your doctor to discuss prevention techniques if you are susceptible to infections, such as if you have diabetes
  • contacting your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of infection or other skin symptoms

FAQ

Megan Soliman, M.D., has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

Is an abscess a serious infection?

Abscesses are complications of infections or foreign objects in the body. Infections that cause abscesses can range from mild to serious.

What are the stages of an abscess?

The first stage of an abscess is its development. At this point, you may not necessarily know you have an abscess.

The abscess may then worsen or persist, causing uncomfortable symptoms. It may be necessary for a doctor to treat the abscess. After treatment, the abscess will drain over a few days. Alternatively, a small or mild abscess may improve on its own.

What is the best medication for an abscess?

Not all abscesses will be treated with medication. Antibiotics may be an option if your abscess is larger or persistent and occurs due to a bacterial infection.

The main treatment for abscesses involves draining the abscess and cleaning the wound.

Summary

Abscesses are a collection of pus from an infection or foreign objects in the body. They can occur internally or in the deeper layers of the skin.

The symptoms of abscesses can depend on where they occur. Skin abscesses may cause visible swelling, fluid, and discoloration. Internal abscesses may cause functional impairments and pain.

Treatment usually involves draining the abscess.

Contact a doctor if you experience symptoms of an abscess or an abscess that is not improving with treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Dec 22
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