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Skin Abscesses

A skin abscess is a collection of pus which has formed on the body as a result of an infection. Pus is a thick fluid which is a mixture of dead tissue and bacteria, and may be green or yellow and have a bad odour.

  1. Symptoms are a swollen lump and pain around the lump
  2. Usually caused by a bacterial infection
  3. Treated with antibiotics and draining the pus

Skin abscesses are usually not a serious condition and will drain naturally when they burst of their own accord. If you are worried about an abscess and would like to speak to a doctor online, you can do so by using our live doctor service. You can consult with one of our GMC-registered doctors at a time that best suits you

Skin Abscesses
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Description

A skin abscess is a pus-filled lump which can occur on any part of the body, and is often caused by an infection. It does not always require treatment as the pus can drain of its own accord, but depending on the size, sometimes antibiotics or a surgical procedure are required.

It is understood that abscesses are a fairly common condition. Risk factors which are thought to lead to hospital admissions include alcohol consumption, intravenous drug abuse and general exposure to dirty environments.

Symptoms of a skin abscess include a swelling under the skin, which can either be soft or firm (with a sense of pain and warmth surrounding the abscess), a build-up of pus in the centre of the affected area, and a fever. It is also possible (although rare) for an abscess to form internally, whereby it develops in the spaces between an organ or on an organ itself. Symptoms can vary dramatically depending on the organ affected. For example, an abscess near the lungs can cause coughing, whereas an abscess near the liver may cause jaundice.

It isn't always possible to prevent skin abscesses, but there are measures you can take to lower the risk of them occurring. If you’ve recently had an abscess, reducing the level of bacteria on the skin can prevent reinfection. This is important, as around 10% of cases recur within a year. You can prevent bacteria developing by washing sheets and clothing regularly, by not sharing towels and maintaining good personal hygiene. After undergoing a draining procedure, ensure that you change the dressing regularly. 

Complications are very rare. It is possible that the pus can spread to tissue nearby and cause further complications, but this is highly unlikely. Skin abscesses usually have no underlying cause, but they are more common in diabetes sufferers. Internal abscesses can be an indication of generally having a compromised immune system. For example, it’s possible for an abscess in the lung to develop having contracted pneumonia.

If you think you have developed a skin abscess or are worried about a lump which you would like to know more about, you can use our live video doctor service to speak to a GMC-registered prescriber online. They can offer their input on whether they think the abscess needs treatment, and advise you on how to reduce the swelling. They are available to speak to at a convenient time for you.

Page last reviewed:  29/04/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

What are the causes of abscesses?

Abscesses are made up of pus, which contains white blood cells, dead tissue and bacteria. An infection in the body causes white blood cells to be sent to the site of the infection to fight off the bacteria, and during this process, tissue dies. 

Not all bacteria cause this. There are certain bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus which are more likely to create pus as they damage the tissue.

How are abscesses diagnosed?

For a diagnosis of a skin abscess, a doctor will examine the affected area, and ask some questions about its formation. They will look to ascertain how long the abscess has been present, whether you have recently sustained an injury and whether you have any other accompanying symptoms which would indicate an infection, such as a fever.

They may also decide to take a sample of the fluid from the abscess for examination in a laboratory, so a clinician can find out what bacteria is causing the infection. 

Will I need tests?

Sometimes a doctor will take a sample of the pus. Analysing this will help them to decide what type of antibiotic to use. Furthermore, if they start to become a recurring problem, a clinician may want to take a urine sample, as repeated abscesses can be an indication of diabetes.

How are abscesses managed?

There are three options for treating an abscess: wait and see (if the abscess is likely to pass on its own), antibiotics, and draining.  

A doctor will assess how large the abscess is before recommending antibiotics. The larger the abscess, the more likely that antibiotics will be needed.

In many cases, the abscess will go away without treatment. It can help to put a warm compress on the affected area to reduce pain and swelling, and also to speed up the healing process.

If the abscess swells to the extent that it needs draining, a doctor will recommend a procedure which involves making a small incision in the abscess to enable the pus to come out. It requires local anaesthetic, and the procedure leaves a small scar, but it is not particularly invasive.

Page last reviewed:  29/04/2020
Questions and Answers

How are abscesses treated?

Abscesses are treated in different ways, depending on their size and location. If an abscess is relatively small, a doctor will usually recommend leaving it and allowing the pus to drain by itself. For larger abscesses, antibiotics may be necessary, or a basic procedure can be conducted which involves draining the pus after making a small incision.

How long will it take for me to recover?

There’s no specific recovery time as such. If you have a surgical procedure to drain the abscess, there may be some pain surrounding the area for a few days and it may take a couple of weeks to completely heal, leaving a small scar.

Can I consult a doctor about abscesses online?

If you have an abscess and wish to speak to a doctor online, you can use our video service to consult with a GMC-registered doctor. They can determine if your symptoms warrant further investigation, and how your abscess may be treated. Book a slot at a time that’s suitable for you.

Page last reviewed:  29/04/2020

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