What Is an Abscess and How Do You Treat It?
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:
- tooth or gum abscesses
- peritonsillar abscess or quinsy
- retropharyngeal abscess
- breast abscess
- abdominal abscess
- liver abscess
- perirectal abscess or anal abscess
- Bartholin abscess or cyst
- vaginal abscess
- brain abscess
- epidural abscess
- spinal cord abscess
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.
Abscess symptoms can vary, depending on factors such as the location of the abscess and its underlying cause.
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.
Symptoms of an internal abscess can vary widely depending on where they occur.
General symptoms of an internal or organ abscess may include:
- pain, tenderness, or discomfort in the affected area
- swelling in the affected area
- fever or chills
- swollen lymph nodes
- headache, or body aches and pains
- increased sweating
- nausea or vomiting
- diarrhea or constipation
- loss of appetite
- unexplained loss of weight
- a feeling of being unwell
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:
- high fever
- fainting or changes in consciousness or responsiveness
- red or discolored streaks on the skin
- seizures or convulsions
- weakness or paralysis
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:
- 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
Treatment for abscesses can depend on the location and severity of the infection.
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.
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.
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:
- delayed healing
- spread of infection
- nerve, tissue, or organ damage
- functional impairments of organs
Treatment and following your doctor’s instructions can help reduce the risk and impact of complications.
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
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.
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.