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What are cysts?

Cysts are benign sacs that contain fluid, cells, air, or other materials and may form anywhere in the body. As a rule, cysts in the lungs are air-filled, whereas those that form in the skin, lymph system, genitourinary system, or other internal organs are usually fluid-filled. Fluid in cysts may be watery or may contain blood. Cysts can develop in response to vessel blockages, infection, parasitic diseases, or abnormal tissues. Cysts can also be present in both benign (noncancerous) and malignant tumors.

Cysts are not usually serious. Many will require no treatment and many resolve on their own. Treatment is required if cysts begin to interfere with organ functioning, if a contributing infection is left untreated, if there is suspicion of cancer, or if troubling symptoms develop. Some cysts near the surface of the body can be drained in an outpatient setting. Others require surgical removal (excision) of the cyst or of tissues damaged by the cyst. Cysts that form within the brain can enlarge and cause neurologic problems.

There are a number of different types of cysts. Common locations for cysts are the skin, the ovaries, the joints and tendons, breast, pancreas, glands of the eyelids, and the kidneys. Cysts are sometimes named according to their anatomic location.

Seek prompt medical care if you have abdominal swelling with abdominal, pelvic, or lower back pain that may be severe; unexplained weight loss; frequent urination or incontinence; and a loss of appetite, or if you are being treated for a cyst but symptoms recur or are persistent.

What are the symptoms of cysts?

Many cysts exhibit no symptoms. A detectable symptom of cysts occurring either on the skin or in tissue near the surface of the body (for example, a breast cyst) is a lump on or beneath the skin that is red, tender, or produces swelling. The development of multiple cysts in the ovary may lead to an imbalance in hormone production. This can result in menstrual problems and hair growth (hirsutism, masculinization).

Common symptoms of cysts

The symptoms of a cyst depend upon the location and size of the cyst. Many cysts will not produce any symptoms at all. Cysts associated with infection or cancers may cause a number of different symptoms. In some cases, such as benign cysts of the skin, a localized lump or swelling is the only symptom. Symptoms of a cyst can include:

  • Abdominal distension, pain or cramping
  • Bulging or protrusion of the eye (orbital dermoid cyst)
  • Fever
  • Irregular or absent menses (polycystic ovary disorder)
  • Lumps or nodules beneath the skin
  • Muscle pain, especially with breathing or with muscle use
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea; loss of appetite
  • Neurologic abnormalities (altered vision, abnormal gait, loss of coordination)
  • Redness or tenderness around a raised area on or below the surface of the skin

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, cysts can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

What causes cysts?

Cysts can be present at birth or be acquired throughout life. Cysts can develop in response to blockages of the flow of body fluids, such as clogged sebaceous glands, as seen in acne, or in response to infection or to a long-standing abscess or ingrown hair, as is the case with pilonidal cysts, which are cysts that occur along the crease between the buttocks. Cysts often form around a foreign object, such as a splinter in the skin.

Cysts in other organs may form as a response to inflammation and normal wear and tear. Cysts are also present in some benign tumors and cancers. Benign cysts are common in the ovary and breast; less commonly, cysts can be found in cancers of these organs. Cysts in the muscles, liver, brain, lungs and eyes may be caused by parasitic diseases.

What are the risk factors for cysts?

The risk factors are dependent upon the type of cyst and the underlying condition that causes the cyst. It is not possible to predict the development of all types of cysts or to prevent their occurrence.

How are cysts treated?

Many cysts go away on their own. Other cysts must be surgically removed, or the underlying disorder may require medical treatment. Drainage of cysts usually leads to recurrence. Depending on the cause of your cysts, it is important to follow your treatment plan to ensure that you are completely rid of both the cysts and any primary disorder that may have caused them.

Treatment of infectious causes of cysts may include surgical drainage of the infection, antibiotics, or anthelmintic medications. Pain-reliever medications may be used for cysts associated with discomfort. Cysts associated with tumors or cysts that interfere with organ function may require surgical removal.

What are the potential complications of cysts?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled cysts can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of cysts depend widely on the location and can include:

  • Cyst rupture with release of cyst contents (resulting inflammation)
  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)
  • Organ failure
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Cyst. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.