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Skin abscess

A skin abscess is a buildup of pus in or on the skin.

Causes

Skin abscesses are common and affect people of all ages. They occur when an infection causes pus to collect in the skin.

Skin abscesses may occur after developing:

  • A bacterial infection (often staphylococcus)
  • A minor wound or injury
  • Boils
  • Folliculitis (infection in a hair follicle)

A skin abscess may occur anywhere on the body.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Fever or chills, in some cases
  • Local swelling around the infected spot
  • Hardened skin tissue
  • Skin lesion that may be an open or closed sore, or a raised area
  • Redness, tenderness, and warmth in the area
  • Fluid or pus drainage

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider can diagnose the problem by looking at the affected area. The drainage from the sore may be sent to the lab for a culture. This can help identify the cause of the infection.

Treatment

You can apply moist heat (such as warm compresses) to help the abscess drain and heal faster. DO NOT push and squeeze on the abscess.

Your provider may cut open the abscess and drain it. If this is done:

  • Numbing medicine will be put on your skin.
  • Packing material may be left in the wound to help it heal.

You may need to take antibiotics by mouth to control the infection.

If you have methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or another staph infection, follow instructions for self-care at home. 

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most skin abscesses can be cured with proper treatment. Infections caused by MRSA respond to specific antibiotics.

Possible Complications

Complications that can occur from an abscess include:

  • Spread of the infection in the same area
  • Spread of the infection into the blood and throughout the body
  • Tissue death (gangrene)

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have any signs of skin infection, including:

  • Drainage of any kind
  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling

Call your provider right away if you develop new symptoms during or after treatment of a skin abscess.

Prevention

Keep the skin around minor wounds clean and dry to prevent infection. Call your provider if you notice signs of infection. Take care of minor infections promptly.

Alternative Names

Abscess - skin; Cutaneous abscess; Subcutaneous abscess; MRSA - abscess; Staph infection - abscess

Images

References

Holtzman LC, Hitti E, Harrow J. Incision and drainage. In: Roberts JR, ed. Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 37.

Marks JG, Miller JJ. Localized erythema.  In: Marks JG, Miller JJ, eds. Lookingbill and Marks' Principles of Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2013:chap 15.

Que YA, Moreillon P. Staphylococcus aureus (including staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome). In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 196.

Review Date 10/24/2016

Updated by: David L. Swanson, MD, Vice Chair of Medical Dermatology, Associate Professor of Dermatology, Mayo Medical School, Scottsdale, AZ. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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