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An abscess is an infection characterized by a collection of pus under the skin. Bacteria commonly causing abscesses are Staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as “staph”) and Streptococcus (commonly known as “strep”). These bacteria enter the skin through any cracks or injury to the skin. The area of skin then becomes tender, warm, and swollen over days to 1-2 weeks, and a fever may develop. Abscesses can sometimes form if minor superficial skin infections are not treated appropriately and in a timely fashion. Most abscesses resolve quickly once appropriately treated.
Who's At Risk?
Abscesses can occur in anyone.
Factors that predispose individuals to developing an abscess include:
- Any skin infection, especially those that are untreated.
- Intravenous drug abuse.
- A weakened immune system due to underlying illness or medication.
Signs & Symptoms
A worsening tender swelling that arises over a period of 1-2 weeks. In lighter skin colors, abscesses may appear red or purple, and in darker skin colors, they may appear purple or brown. The pus underneath the skin is usually not visible, but you may be able to feel fluid in the abscess when you press on it. You may have a fever or may generally feel unwell.
There are no self-care options for abscesses. While waiting to see your medical professional, you can try applying a warm compress to the affected area and take ibuprofen (eg, Advil, Motrin) to help with the swelling and pain.
To prevent the spread of infection to others, infected wounds, hands, and other exposed body areas should be kept clean, and wounds should be covered until healed.
Your medical professional may drain the pus and fluid collection by making a small incision in the skin after it has been numbed. This will drain most of the bacteria, helping the body fight the small amount that remains. This fluid may then be sent to a laboratory for testing (a bacterial culture). The culture results can determine what type of bacterium is causing the infection and also what antibiotics will work best to treat it. Your medical professional may choose to have you start oral antibiotics aimed at treating the most common bacteria that cause abscesses while awaiting these results. However, if the infection is small and it has been drained, your medical professional may decide not to treat you with oral antibiotics.
If your symptoms are not improving or it is determined that the bacterium is not one of the common types, your medical professional may prescribe different antibiotics. If you are prescribed antibiotics, it is important to take the entire course as prescribed, even if you are feeling better or the infection appears to be gone after just a few days. If you have been taking antibiotics and the infection is not improving or you continue to feel unwell after about 2-3 days, return to your medical professional.
A worsening tender, swelling area on the skin should prompt you to make an appointment with your medical professional as soon as possible. If the area involves your face, is spreading rapidly, or is in an area that severely limits your functionality, you should seek emergency care.
Bolognia J, Schaffer JV, Cerroni L. Dermatology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018.
James WD, Elston D, Treat JR, Rosenbach MA. Andrew’s Diseases of the Skin. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019.
Kang S, Amagai M, Bruckner AL, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education; 2019.
Last modified on September 28th, 2023 at 8:32 pm
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