Abscess: A Localized Infection

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Abscesses are common health problems where pus gathers in one spot because of bacteria. They can happen anywhere in the body, from skin to deep inside organs like the liver or lungs. Abscesses can be painful, make you swell up, and even cause sickness all over your body if not treated. This introduction explains what causes abscesses, their symptoms, how doctors find them, ways to treat them, and how to stop them from happening.

We will cover the following topics in this blog:

What is an Abscess? 

An abscess is a painful, swollen lump filled with pus. It can form on or under the skin and is usually caused by a bacterial infection. When your body fights the infection, white blood cells travel to the area, causing the tissue to die and creating a pocket filled with pus. Abscesses can occur anywhere in the body and often need medical treatment to drain the pus and heal properly.

Different types of Abscess

1. Skin Abscesses or Boils

These abscesses affect areas like the face, throat, armpits, or groin. They form under the skin and create painful, swollen lumps filled with pus.

2. Dental Abscesses

These occur inside the tooth or gum. They are usually caused by an infection and can result in severe toothache and swelling.

3. Pilonidal Abscesses or Cysts

These are found in the crease of the buttocks. They often develop from ingrown hairs and can be very painful.

4. Peritonsillar Abscess

This type of abscess forms near the tonsils and is typically a complication of tonsillitis. It can cause severe throat pain and difficulty swallowing.

5. Perianal Abscess

This occurs near the anus and rectum, often resulting from an infection in the glands around the area. It can cause pain and swelling around the anus.

6. Internal Abscesses

These form inside the body, such as in the abdomen, liver, or other organs. They are usually more serious and require medical treatment to drain the pus and treat the infection.

Signs and Symptoms of an Abscess 

Signs and Symptoms of an Abscess 

An abscess is a localized collection of pus that can occur in any part of the body and is typically the result of an infection. Signs and symptoms of an abscess include:

  • Swelling: The affected area is often swollen and may feel firm or hard.
  • Redness: The skin over the abscess is usually red and inflamed.
  • Pain: Abscesses are often painful, and the pain may be constant or throbbing.
  • Warmth: The area around the abscess may feel warm to the touch.
  • Tenderness: The affected area is usually tender when touched.
  • Fever: A high temperature may be present, indicating that the infection is spreading.
  • Pus drainage: If the abscess ruptures, you may see a discharge of thick, yellow or green pus.
  • Foul odor: The pus may have a foul smell.
  • Fatigue: Feeling tired and generally unwell can accompany an abscess, especially if the infection is severe.
  • Swollen lymph nodes: Nearby lymph nodes may become enlarged and tender as the body fights the infection.

Causes of Abscess

An abscess is typically caused by an infection, which leads to the accumulation of pus in a tissue cavity. Common causes of abscesses include

Bacterial infection

Most abscesses are caused by bacteria, particularly Staphylococcus aureus. Bacteria can enter the body through a break in the skin, such as a cut, scrape, or puncture wound.

Blocked sebaceous or sweat glands

When these glands become blocked, bacteria can grow inside, leading to an abscess. This is common with conditions like acne.

Infected hair follicles

Infected hair follicles can lead to abscesses such as boils or carbuncles.

Foreign objects

Splinters, needles, or other foreign objects that penetrate the skin can introduce bacteria and lead to an abscess.

Weakened immune system

Individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with diabetes, cancer, or HIV/AIDS, are more susceptible to developing abscesses.

Poor hygiene

Poor hygiene practices can increase the risk of skin infections and abscess formation.

Chronic conditions

Certain chronic conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, can lead to internal abscesses.

Dental issues

Poor dental hygiene or dental infections can cause dental abscesses.

Surgical procedures

Post-surgical infections can sometimes result in abscesses.

Trauma or injury

Trauma or injury to an area can increase the risk of an abscess if the wound becomes infected.

Diagnosis of abscess

Diagnosing an abscess typically involves a combination of physical examination and medical tests. Here are the common steps and methods used in the diagnosis

Medical History

The healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, the duration of those symptoms, any recent injuries, surgeries, or infections, and any underlying medical conditions that could predispose you to abscess formation.

Physical Examination

The doctor will inspect the affected area for signs of an abscess, such as redness, swelling, warmth, and tenderness. They may palpate (feel) the area to assess the size, firmness, and fluctuation (fluid movement) within the swelling.

Imaging Studies

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound can help visualize the abscess and determine its size, location, and the extent of fluid collection. This is especially useful for deep abscesses that are not easily visible or palpable.
  • CT Scan: A computed tomography (CT) scan provides detailed images of internal organs and structures, helping to locate abscesses in deeper tissues, such as in the abdomen or pelvis.
  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is sometimes used to obtain detailed images of soft tissues and can be particularly useful for abscesses in areas like the brain or spinal cord.

Aspiration and Culture

  • The doctor may use a needle to aspirate (draw out) some of the pus from the abscess. This sample is then sent to a laboratory for culture and sensitivity testing to identify the specific bacteria or other microorganisms causing the infection and to determine the most effective antibiotics for treatment.

Blood Tests

  • Blood tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC), may be ordered to check for signs of infection, such as an elevated white blood cell count.
  • Blood cultures may be done if there is a suspicion that the infection has spread to the bloodstream.


In some cases, especially if the abscess is not responding to standard treatments or if there is a concern about a possible malignancy, a biopsy of the abscess wall or surrounding tissue may be performed.

Treatment of Abscess

Treatment of an abscess aims to eliminate the infection, relieve pain, and prevent complications. The specific approach depends on the size, location, and severity of the abscess, as well as the patient’s overall health. Here are the common treatment methods:


  • Oral antibiotics: Prescribed if the abscess is small and can potentially be treated without drainage. Antibiotics help to clear the infection.
  • Intravenous antibiotics: Used for larger or more severe abscesses, or if the patient has a weakened immune system.

Incision and Drainage

  • This is the most common and effective treatment for abscesses. A healthcare provider makes a small incision in the abscess to allow the pus to drain out.
  • Local anesthesia is usually used to numb the area before the procedure.
  • After drainage, the wound is cleaned and sometimes packed with sterile gauze to promote further drainage and healing.

Needle Aspiration

  • For abscesses in deeper tissues or sensitive areas, a needle may be used to aspirate (draw out) the pus.
  • This is often guided by imaging techniques such as ultrasound or CT scan to ensure accuracy.

Warm Compresses

  • Applying warm compresses to the affected area can help increase blood flow, reduce pain, and encourage the abscess to drain naturally.

Pain Relief

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help manage pain and reduce inflammation.

Surgical Intervention

  • In cases where the abscess is large, deep, or does not respond to other treatments, surgical drainage may be necessary.
  • This is typically done in a hospital setting under general anesthesia.

Proper Wound Care

  • Keeping the area clean and properly dressed to prevent further infection.
  • Following up with a healthcare provider to monitor the healing process.

Treatment of Underlying Conditions

  • If the abscess is associated with a chronic condition such as diabetes or an immune deficiency, managing these conditions is crucial to prevent recurrence.
Prevent an Abscess 

Prevent an Abscess 

Preventing abscesses involves several key practices aimed at reducing the risk of infection and maintaining good hygiene. Here are some preventive measures

Good Hygiene

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, especially before handling food and after using the bathroom.
  • Keep cuts, scrapes, and wounds clean and covered until healed to prevent bacterial entry.
  • Practice proper dental hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing, to prevent dental infections that can lead to abscesses.

Skin Care

  • Shower regularly and use mild soap to keep your skin clean.
  • Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, razors, or clothing that may harbor bacteria.

Wound Care

  • Clean any cuts, scrapes, or puncture wounds promptly with soap and water.
  • Apply an antiseptic or antibiotic ointment and cover with a clean bandage until healed.

Manage Chronic Conditions

  • Control underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or immune deficiencies as directed by your healthcare provider to reduce susceptibility to infections.

Dental Health

  • Schedule regular dental check-ups and promptly treat any dental issues, such as cavities or gum disease, to prevent oral infections that can lead to dental abscesses.

Avoidance of Risky Behaviors

  • Avoid injecting drugs or sharing needles, which can introduce bacteria and lead to skin abscesses.
  • Practice safe sex to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, which can sometimes lead to abscesses.


  • Stay up-to-date with recommended vaccinations, such as tetanus, to prevent infections that can lead to abscess formation after injuries.

Healthy Lifestyle

  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly to support overall immune function and promote healing.


Q1. What causes abscesses?

A1. Most abscesses are caused by a bacterial infection. When bacteria get into your body, your immune system sends white blood cells to fight the infection. As the white blood cells attack the bacteria, some nearby tissue dies, forming an abscess.

Q2. How to remove an abscess?

A2. To treat an abscess, we make a cut in the skin to drain the pus and clean the area. We leave the cut open and do not stitch it closed to prevent pus from building up again. Then, we cover the area with a dressing to protect the wound.

Q3. What are the three types of abscesses?

A3. There are many types of abscesses, including:

  • Skin abscesses or boils: These affect the face, throat, armpits, or groin.
  • Dental abscesses: These occur inside the tooth or gum.
  • Pilonidal abscesses or cysts: These are found in the crease of the buttocks.

Q4. What’s the difference between boils and abscesses?

A4. Boils are superficial infections with a thin layer of skin over fluid. Abscesses are generally larger and deeper than boils, with redness and painful swelling over an area filled with pus. Cellulitis is an infection within the skin and the area just beneath it; the skin is red and tender.

Q5. Is an abscess painful?

A5. An abscess on the skin might look like an unhealed wound or a pimple. An abscess under the skin may create a swollen bump. The area can be painful and tender.

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