An abscess is the body's way of trying to heal from an infection. Abscesses form
after bacteria, fungi, or other germs enter the body — usually through an open wound
like a cut — and cause an infection.
An abscess might appear on the skin, under the skin, in a tooth, or even deep inside
the body. On top of the skin, an abscess may look like an unhealed wound or a pimple.
Underneath the skin, it may create a swollen bump. A skin abscess might hurt and feel
warm when you touch it.
It's easier to tell if you have a skin abscess because you can see and touch it.
But when someone gets an abscess in another part of the body, there will still be
clues that something is wrong. With a tooth abscess, for example, people will feel
pain even though they can't see the abscess.
What Causes an Abscess?
Abscesses can form wherever the body is fighting off an infection. For example,
a skin abscess can appear when germs get into the body through an opening in the skin
(like a cut, insect sting, or burn).
Most germs don't belong in a healthy body and the immune
system knows it: It's the immune system's job to be on the lookout for infection.
After figuring out that something is wrong, it sends in the troops (otherwise known
as white blood cells) to destroy whatever's
causing the infection. Some of these white blood cells will end up in pus, which also
includes stuff like dead skin and dead germs.
The body considers pus garbage and will try to get rid of it. But when pus collects
in an abscess, it may not be able to drain out. As pus builds up, it can press against
the skin and surrounding
tissue, causing pain.
Some abscesses are caused by an irritant like an injected medication that was not
completely absorbed. Since they're not caused by infection, these kinds of abscesses
are called "sterile" abscesses. Sterile abscesses aren't as common as infected
abscesses, but they can happen on occasion.
How Are Abscesses Treated?
Most abscesses can be managed at home. If you think you have a skin abscess, avoid
touching, pushing, popping, or squeezing it. Doing that can spread the infection or
push it deeper inside the body, making things worse.
Try using a warm compress to see if that opens up the abscess so it can drain.
You can make a compress by wetting a washcloth with warm — not hot — water and placing
it over the abscess for several minutes. Do this a few times a day, and wash your
hands well before and after applying the washcloth.
If the abscess opens on its own and drains, and the infection seems to clear up
in a couple of days, your body should heal on its own. If it doesn't, it's time to
call your doctor's office.
If you have tooth pain and you suspect there may be an infection, call your dentist.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
Sometimes, an abscess needs a doctor's care. If you notice any of these problems,
call your doctor:
A skin abscess becomes more painful, swollen, and red.
Red streaks develop around the infected area of skin.
You have pain or discomfort inside your body.
You have a fever or chills.
If a doctor thinks you have an abscess, he or she will decide if it needs to be
drained or if it can be treated another way, like with antibiotics.
If an abscess needs to be drained, the doctor will decide if it's best to pull
out the pus using a needle (called aspiration) or to make a small
cut in the abscess with a scalpel so the pus can drain out.
For a skin abscess, the doctor will probably use numbing medications before draining
an abscess so it's not too painful. After the doctor drains the abscess, he or she
may pack it with gauze. The gauze will soak up drainage and help the abscess heal.
An abscess that is deep inside the body might require surgery.
This may mean staying in the hospital for a while so doctors and nurses can be sure
the person heals properly.
How Can I Feel Better?
Your doctor will give you instructions about how to take care of an abscess so
it heals properly. Your doctor also might tell you to avoid specific activities until
the abscess heals. You may need to take antibiotics, and you (or your lucky mom or
dad!) might have to change a bandage regularly.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, take all the medicine until it's
gone — even if you start feeling better.
If you have a skin abscess, take steps so you don't spread the infection
to anyone else. Don't share anything that's touched your abscess (like washcloths,
towels, athletic equipment, or razors).
Even after a visit to the doctor, you'll still need to keep an eye on the abscess.
Let your doctor know right away if it gets worse or if you develop a fever
If you have a skin abscess, your doctor might want to do tests to find out if you
have something called MRSA, a kind of bacteria
that can cause serious skin infections. MRSA infections need special treatment because
they are resistant to many kinds of antibiotics.
Can Abscesses Be Prevented?
Good hygiene is the best way to avoid infection. Keep cuts
and wounds clean, dry, and covered to protect them from germs. Also, don't share clothing,
towels, razors, or bed linens with anyone else. When these items get dirty, wash them
separately in very hot water.
Wash your hands well and
often using plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. It's OK to use
alcohol-based instant hand sanitizers or wipes (the kind that you can pick up at a
drugstore) if you're not near any soap and water.