Skin Abscess: All You Need To Know

Written by Reevan Vishwas Rego , Certified Skin Care Coach

Have you tried to pop something that looks and feels like a pimple but is not quite a pimple? Suffered massive amounts of pain only to find it much worse than it originally was? That is probably because you are dealing with a skin abscess. What is a skin abscess and how do you deal with it? Keep reading to know more!

What Is An Abscess?

A skin abscess is similar to a pimple but only much larger and lies a lot deeper under the skin. These are formed as a result of the defense mechanism adopted by your body to fight off infection.

In the next section let us look at what are some of the symptoms of skin abscesses.

Skin Abscess Symptoms

Symptoms of skin abscess are as follows (1):

  • The appearance of bumpy protrusion on the surface of the skin.
  • Collection of white puss-like substance or clear fluid inside the bump.
  • Painful swelling of the area around the abscess.

Now having learned about the symptoms of a skin abscess, let us look at some of its causes.

What Causes A Skin Abscess?

Skin abscess is caused due to infection of the skin and its underlying tissues by disruption to the skin barrier, edema, and immune suppression. Even healthy people without any of these conditions can develop skin abscesses due to bacterial infections. Bacterial skin abscess is mainly caused by a group of bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes and Staphylococcus aureus (1), (2).

In the next section let us understand the diagnosis of skin abscesses and their possible implications.

Diagnosing An Abscess

Diagnosing a skin abscess correctly and timely is essential so that appropriate treatment can be provided to reduce the infection. A single abscess is not a matter of concern, it can be treated at home depending on the severity.

If your abscess persists even after applying home remedies or if any of the following symptoms arise, you would need to see a doctor.

  • The area around the abscess becomes red and feels warm when you touch it.
  • The area around the abscess becomes swollen and painful to touch.
  • Recurring abscesses are a sign of MSRA infection (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is caused due to the resistance of the bacteria to some antibiotics (3).
  • You have a high fever and your pulse rate is very high.

After having diagnosed your skin abscess, your doctor will prescribe a further course of medication and the required treatment. In some cases, the skin abscess may cause a few complications, let us find out what they are in the upcoming section.

Complications Of A Skin Abscess

The most common and critical complication that arises due to skin abscess is the spread of the infection to the surrounding tissues. In rare cases, the abscess can be fatal if it is in an area that puts pressure on vital organs. For instance, if the abscess is on the neck, it puts pressure on the trachea. The spread of the pus from the abscess can cause the surrounding tissues to die and lead to gangrene(an infection that causes flesh to rot away) (2).

Based on the severity of your abscess, appropriate medication and treatment are suggested by your doctor. The course of the medication will be discussed in the next section.

What Is The Course Of Medication For Skin Abscess?

A timely diagnosis will help in getting the right medication and treatment for your skin abscess. Antibiotics may or may not be suggested by your doctor as part of your recovery.

In a few cases, the infection may spread to deeper levels of the skin. Sometimes, the abscess recurs, and you’ll need to seek medical attention. If all goes well and your prognosis is good, you should have nothing to worry about.

In the next section let us look at how you can get rid of a skin abscess at home.

How To Get Rid Of A Skin Abscess At Home?

Small skin abscesses can be treated at home and no medical assistance is required. However, you have to be careful when you are doing this. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when you are treating your skin abscess at home.

  • If your skin abscess is less than half-inch in size, you can treat it at home by applying a warm compress. Apply heat to the affected area for 30 minutes, 3-4 times a day. This may help reduce swelling and pain.
  • Don’t try to drain the abscess by squeezing it. This may push the infectious material deeper into the skin.
  • Do not attempt to poke the abscess with a needle or sharp object. You may end up damaging surrounding tissues and blood vessels in this process.

If home remedies don’t work on your skin abscess, it is recommended that you seek medical treatment to avoid any further complications.

If you’re wondering what medical treatment is required for dealing with a skin abscess, the next section will explain it for you.

How To Treat A Skin Abscess?

The most surefire procedure to treat a skin abscess is by draining it. It is a fairly simple procedure that uses local anesthesia and a few surgical equipment.

  • Your doctor first cleans the infected area with surgical spirit using a cotton swab.
  • Topical anesthesia is applied to the infected area.
  • An incision is made using a surgical knife to drain the pus.
  • In some cases, the doctor packs the abscess with surgical gauze to drain the pus and prevent the abscess from returning.
  • The doctor leaves a small portion of the gauze outside the abscess so that you can keep removing it bit-by-bit every day.
  • If the cavity caused by the abscess is too large, your doctor asks you to come back and replace the gauze till the wound heals.
  • After the wound heals from inside, you remove the entire gauze.

In some parts of China where patients refused to undergo the incision procedure, they were treated with fire needle therapy using acupuncture needles. Patients with skin abscesses less than 4cm in diameter opted for this procedure.

  • The infected area is cleaned with 75% alcohol and a cotton swab.
  • Sterile and disposable acupuncture needles are heated using a spirit lamp till the tip of the needle becomes red hot.
  • Once the tip of the needle is red hot, it is inserted into the abscess at a 90° angle to puncture the wall of the abscess and is quickly pulled out.
  • The puss is then gently squeezed out and is cleaned with a cotton swab.
  • After the treatment, mupirocin ointment is applied to the area.

The patients are observed for 2 days and if the therapy is effective but pus forms again, the therapy is repeated. If the therapy is ineffective, the patients undergo B-scan ultrasonography and are prescribed antibiotics (5 6).

As you know, prevention is better than cure. In the next section let us look at some quick and easy tips to prevent skin abscesses.

How To Prevent A Skin Abscess?

Preventing skin abscesses completely may not be possible at all times. You can however minimize your chances of contracting the staph infection (infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus).

Follow these simple tips to minimize your risk:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water as frequently as you can.
  • Clean your cuts and scrapes with soap and water. Make sure you apply an antibacterial ointment to the affected area.
  • Bandage your cuts and avoid exposing them to environmental factors.
  • Do not share personal grooming items like razors, towels, and makeup with others.
  • Regularly change and wash your bed linen. Make sure you wash it with hot water and dry it well before use.

Follow these simple tips and you may be able to prevent skin abscesses.

Have you ever wondered how a boil is different from an abscess? Have you mistaken both of them to be the same? The next section should help clear this confusion.

Abscess Vs Boil

Boils in comparison to abscesses are much smaller in size. They develop when hair follicles and the tissues surrounding them become infected. Similar to abscesses, boils are pus-filled and lie deep below the skin. They hurt a lot more than pimples and are caused by a bacterial infection.
Boils generally go away on their own and do not cause problems. If they do not go away on their own, you need to see a doctor and get proper treatment and medication (7).

Boils, unlike abscesses, can multiply into a cluster and become a carbuncle(multiple boils formed in one spot). In some cases, boils can become abscesses. Boils are also treated the same way as abscesses; they are drained by making an incision (7).

This should help you understand the difference between boils and abscesses. If you still aren’t sure about what you have contracted, you can always seek medical advice. The next section deals with when to seek medical advice.

When To Contact A Medical Professional?

When it comes to abscesses and boils, you need to contact a medical professional in the following cases.

  • If your abscess is more than 1cm in size.
  • The abscess continues to grow despite home remedial treatments.
  • The area around it becomes red and painful.
  • You begin to notice red streaks leading away from the area. This indicates that the infection is spreading.
  • If you have abscesses or boils near your neck, groin, or rectal areas (2), (3), (4), (7).

The doctors will check your medical history and ask you these questions pertaining to the boil or abscess.

  • How long have you had the abscess?
  • Have you sustained an injury to the infected area?
  • Are you on any prescription medication?
  • Do you have any allergies?

Based on your medical history and recent events leading to the infection, you will receive appropriate treatment and medication.

In conclusion, a skin abscess appears due to bacterial infections caused by a group of bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes and Staphylococcus aureus. While small single abscesses are harmless and can be treated at home, the larger ones need medical assistance. Larger abscesses need to be drained by making an incision and packing them with sterile gauze. Boils are also similar to abscesses and are a result of bacterial infection. Boils can become abscesses in some cases. Skin abscesses and boils can’t be prevented always, but you can follow a few hygiene tips to minimize the risk of contracting the infection.

Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions

Is a skin abscess an emergency?

No, it is not an emergency. If the abscess continues to grow and causes you discomfort, you can consult a doctor.

Should you pop a skin abscess?

No, you should not pop a skin abscess. Popping it may cause the pus to infect surrounding tissues and may cause gangrene (2).

What antibiotics treat abscesses?

It is best not to self-medicate with antibiotics. You should consult your doctor and take their prescribed antibiotic.

What helps pain from abscesses?

Applying a warm compress to the area may help relieve some of the pain.

Will the ER drain an abscess?

Yes, the ER will help in draining the abscess.

What are the first signs of an abscess?

The appearance of a bump-like formation on the skin filled with pus or clear liquid.

What happens if you leave a skin abscess untreated?

Skin abscess if left untreated can cause tissue death in the surrounding area and cause gangrene. In some cases, it can be life-threatening (2),(8).

Why do I get a lot of abscesses?

It could possibly be due to untreated MSRA infection (8).

Are skin abscesses hard?

Generally, skin abscesses are soft. In some cases, they may be hard.

Can an abscess be cancerous?

Abscesses and boils aren’t cancerous but are common in people suffering from cancer and diabetes (7).

Is surgery required for abscesses?

Surgery is not required for a skin abscess, a simple incision and drain process is sufficient.

Can I shower after having an abscess drained?

Yes, you can.

References:

Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. Skin and Soft Tissue Infections
    https://www.aafp.org/afp/2015/0915/afp20150915p474.pdf
  2. Bacterial Skin Abscess
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340798201_Bacterial_Skin_Abscess
  3. Skin Infections
    https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/skin-infections.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fantibiotic-use%2Fcommunity%2Ffor-patients%2Fcommon-illnesses%2Fskin-infections.html
  4. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)
    https://www.cdc.gov/mrsa/index.html
  5. Local Heat Increases Blood Flow and Oxygen Tension in Wounds
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3813871/
  6. Effective Treatment of Small Uncomplicated Skin Abscesses with Fire Needle: A Case Series
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34675553/
  7. Boils and carbuncles: Overview
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513141/
  8. Bacterial Skin and Soft Tissue Infections in Adults: A Review of Their ‘Epidemiology’ ‘Pathogenesis’ ‘Diagnosis’ Treatment and Site of Care
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC2605859/
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