An abscess is a collection of pus that appears as a pink to dark red colored bump, within or below the skin surface. There will be tenderness, and in most cases, swelling and inflammation can be seen. It occurs due to bacterial infection (mostly Staphylococcus aureus) on any part of the body. However, face, neck, chest, base of the spine and tooth are the commonly affected parts.

Areas of hair growth such as armpits and groin are also commonly affected. There may be deep skin or internal abscesses that form in lungs, brain, kidney, and teeth. Deep skin abscesses are difficult to diagnose.

The type of abscess depends on the area where the abscess is formed. The common ones include:

  • Anal abscess
  • Breast abscess
  • Dental abscess
  • Gluteal abscess
  • Ischiorectal abscess
  • Perianal abscess
  • Perineal abscess
  • Periodontal abscess
  • Perirectal abscess
  • Pilonidal abscess
  • Tooth abscess

Signs and symptoms of an abscess include:

  • Redness and swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Fever and chills
  • Loss of function of affected body part
  • In the case of a deep skin abscess, high temperature, pain in the affected area, and general weakness can help to identify the abscess.

An abscess develops when the bacteria invade the sebaceous or sweat glands, hair follicles, or enters through the cuts, incisions, or punctures of the skin - leading to inflammatory responses.

Abscess also develops after a surgical procedure. Internal abscesses develop as a complication of the existing condition. For example, there may be a chance of development of abscess due to appendicitis.

The factors that increase your risk of developing abscess include:

Intravenous drug use - Through frequent penetration of the needle, there will be skin damage leading to increased risk of infections.

High blood sugar levels – People with diabetes or having a diet rich in sugars are more prone to infections.

Weak immune system – Immune system may weaken because of other illnesses or use of immunosuppressive drugs increasing the risk of infections.

Usually, most abscesses will heal within two weeks. Uncomplicated skin abscesses shrink and drain by applying heat with the help of a warm compress. Do not squeeze or puncture an abscess as it can make the infection deeper and thus worsening the condition.

Consult a doctor in the following situations:

  • If the abscess is larger than 1cm
  • If the abscess fails to heal
  • If you have an underlying disease condition such as HIV, cancer, or peripheral vascular disease
  • If you are a drug abuser
  • If you are on steroid therapy, chemotherapy, or immunosuppressive therapy
  • If you are pregnant
  • If you have recurrent abscesses
  • If your body temperature is 100.4o F or higher

Your doctor will review medical history and ask information about the time of onset of abscess, allergies, use of prescription and non-prescription medicines, and co-existing conditions.

Depending on the location and extent of the abscess, your doctor may recommend blood tests, wound culture tests, or imaging studies.

Abscess is structurally similar to cysts and boils. Cysts are painless unless they are irritated by rupture and they usually resolve on their own unlike abscess. Boils and carbuncles are types of abscess that involve hair follicles.

The standard therapy is incision and drainage of the abscess. Your doctor will numb the area by administering local anesthesia and applies the antiseptic lotion on the affected area. Then the abscess is cut open to drain the pus and debris. After draining, the wound is left open for one or two days. Later, the wound is dressed with the bandage. The pain subsides as the abscess heals.

Antibiotics are prescribed to patients with severe abscesses such as an abscess on the face, the presence of more than one abscess, and compromised immune system. Dicloxacillin or cephalexin are commonly prescribed antibiotics.

To prevent development of new or recurrent abscess:

  • Examine your skin regularly, particularly high-risk areas for any minor cuts.
  • Clean the cuts and scrapes thoroughly and apply an antibacterial ointment.
  • Perform home-care carefully as per your doctor’s instructions. Report immediately if there is any illness, fever, increased pain, redness or swelling.
  • If you are diabetic, follow your diabetes treatment plan without failure to control your blood glucose levels.