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What is an abscess?

An abscess is a collection of pus that can develop on various parts of the body or just underneath the skin. They are usually caused by a bacterial infection and smaller ones can disappear on their own.

An abscess may become painful, large or embarrassing and these factors, along with the severity of the symptoms, will dictate what treatment is needed – sometimes no treatment is needed and they will clear up on their own. Larger abscesses may respond to antibiotics, if caught early, and some may require a small surgical operation to drain them.

What are the symptoms?

Different types of abscess present different symptoms. If it is just under your skin, you may have:

  • A swelling that is full of yellow or white pus
  • A swelling that is hard to the touch
  • A swelling with a point or head

A skin abscess may also be also be:

  • Painful or tender
  • Warm to the touch
  • Surrounded by pink or red skin

While your body is trying to fight off the bacteria, you may feel under the weather or experience a fever and chills.

An internal abscess can also form inside your body in an organ or in the space between your organs. Unlike skin abscesses, these usually form because of another condition. A liver infection, for example, can result in a liver abscess.

Internal abscesses most often occur if you have a weakened immune system. You may have pain in the affected area, and have a general feeling of being unwell – including a temperature and chills.

How are abscesses diagnosed?

You should speak to a doctor if the abscess is in a place that is highly visible, such as on your hands or face, or if:

  • the affected area becomes painful or enlarges
  • You have an abscess that is larger than 1cm across
  • You are an IV drug abuser
  • You have another condition such as cancer, AIDS, diabetes, sickle cell disease, poor circulation or leukaemia
  • Your abscess has formed close to your groin or rectal area
  • You are receiving chemotherapy or steroid therapy
  • You have a high fever of over 38.5 Celsius
  • You have a red streak leading away from the abscess, as this is a sign of spreading infection

Our doctors can diagnose your abscess by looking at it during an online video consultation, if it is visible. In many cases, no further tests will be needed, but if they are, you may be referred to a specialist so that a sample of the pus can be taken and tested to find out which bacteria has caused it to develop.

If you are worried you have an internal abscess, speak to a GP for more advice. An ultrasound and blood tests will usually be used to diagnose it.

Abscesses are more common in people with diabetes, so the doctor may want to check your glucose levels - recurring abscesses could be a sign that you have an autoimmune disorder.

Abscess causes

Most commonly, abscesses are caused by an infection. Your immune system sends white blood cells to fight off the bacteria, which causes the area to swell up and it may cause skin tissue to die. This can leave you with a gap that fills with pus to create an abscess.

Bacteria can get into your skin through minor grazes and cuts or through hair follicles or a blocked sweat gland. Most commonly, this happens in areas of your body where there is sweat, hair or friction, such as your underarms, hands, genitals, feet, vagina (Bartholin’s abscess) or buttocks (pilonidal abscess).

Internal abscesses can develop within an organ, or in the space between your organs, usually due to another condition. You may not have any symptoms, or you may feel some pain or discomfort in the area. An ultrasound will usually be used to diagnose an internal abscess.

Are certain people more at risk of developing an abscess?

Abscesses can affect anyone, even if you are fit and well. Often, once the infection is gone, you will not have any other problems.

However, you are more at risk of developing a severe abscess if you have:

  • Diabetes
  • AIDS
  • Long-term steroid therapy
  • Cancer
  • Chemotherapy
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Leukaemia
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Peripheral vascular disorders
  • Severe trauma
  • Severe burns

What is the treatment for a abscess?

Small abscesses may go away on their own. You can help them along by applying a warm compress. If your abscess becomes larger, spongier or softer, or if your abscess has formed in a place that is highly visible, such as on the hands, neck or face, then our doctors can help.

Some large abscesses can be treated with antibiotics and our doctors can decide if this is needed, and prescribe the antibiotics during an online consultation. In some cases, the doctor may refer you for abscess drainage.

Abscess drainage takes place under a local anaesthetic, so you shouldn’t feel any pain. A small incision is made and then the abscess is drained. Following the incision and drainage, the doctor will clean and dress the wound, which will clear the infection and ensure that it doesn’t spread.

If you have an internal abscess, the pus may need to be drained away, either by inserting a needle through the skin, or through surgery. You will also be prescribed antibiotics to help get rid of the infection.