What is an abscess?
An abscess is a collection of pus, usually caused by a bacterial infection. Abscesses can form just under the skin (known as a skin abscess) or inside the body (known as an internal abscess).
When bacteria enters your body, your body responds by sending white blood cells to fight the infection. As the white blood cells destroy the bacteria, nearby tissue can die also, to form a hole.
This hole fills with pus – a thick fluid containing white blood cells, bacteria and dead tissue – forming an abscess. If the infection continues and the pus can’t escape, the abscess will continue to get bigger.
What causes an abscess?
Most abscesses are caused by a bacterial infection – either in the skin or internally.
Internal abscesses usually happen as a complication of an existing problem or another condition such as an infection elsewhere in your body.
For example, if your appendix bursts as a result of appendicitis, bacteria can spread inside your tummy causing an abscess to form.
What are the symptoms of an abscess?
Most abscesses form just under the skin and look like swollen lumps. Your symptoms may include:
A painful lump, that’s red and warm around the affected area
High temperature or chills
Abscesses can sometimes form inside the body, inside an organ or in the spaces between organs. The symptoms of internal abscesses vary depending on where the abscess is.
As abscesses inside the body can’t be seen, it can be more challenging to identify them.
Common signs of an internal abscess include:
Pain in the affected area
A high temperature
How is an abscess treated?
Your treatment will depend on the type and size of the abscess. The usual treatments include antibiotics, procedures to drain away the pus and, in some cases, surgery.
Treatment for a skin abscess
Small skin abscesses may drain naturally and not require any treatment. These are some things that can help ease a skin abscess:
Applying heat – pressing a warm flannel on the skin may help to reduce swelling and speed up the healing process. To avoid spreading the infection, wash the flannel thoroughly after each use and don’t share it with others.
Taking antibiotics – for larger or persistent skin abscesses, a doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics to help your body clear the infection and stop it from spreading.
Draining the abscess – sometimes antibiotics aren’t enough to treat the infection and the abscess may need to be drained, to prevent it bursting and spreading infection. The doctor will make a cut into the abscess to allow the pus to drain out. This procedure is referred to as ‘incision and drainage’.
Treatment for an internal abscess
A doctor will usually drain pus from an internal abscess either by inserting a needle through the skin or with surgery. The procedure depends on the size and site of your abscess.
Some reasons for having surgery include:
An abscess that’s too large to be drained with a needle
An abscess in a location where a needle can’t safely get to it
Needle drainage failed to remove all of the pus
You will usually be given antibiotics either as tablets or directly into a vein (intravenously) to help get rid of the infection.
Who’s at risk of developing abscesses?
Abscesses tend to be more common in people who:
Are/have been on antibiotics in the past 6 months
An internal abscess usually occurs in people who are unwell with other problems or in those with weaker immune systems. For example, a lung abscess may develop following a chest infection like pneumonia.
When should I speak to a doctor?
Finding a new lump on your body can be worrying, and it’s easy to let your mind jump to the worst possible outcome. But not every lump is a cause for alarm – most are harmless and can be left alone.
Book an appointment with a healthcare professional if you think you may have an abscess.
How can Livi help?
Livi’s healthcare professionals can discuss your symptoms and take a look at the abscess. If appropriate, they can refer you to the hospital or specialist help for treatment.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi