A skin abscess, sometimes also known as a boil, is painful and can be pretty unpleasant to look at or deal with. The good news is that a skin abscess is usually not very serious. However, if you have one, you’ll probably want to have it looked at by a doctor.
A skin abscess occurs when there is an infection in the tissues on or underneath your skin. White blood cells flood into the infected area to help fight the invading bacteria. When that happens, white blood cells, fluid, dead tissue, and bacteria form the pus that builds up in the abscess.
The most common causes of abscesses are infectious organisms, parasites, foreign substances, or a minor wound or injury. Skin abscesses are one of the most common kinds of abscesses and are usually red, swollen, painful, and warm to the touch. They often look like a bump or have a “domed” appearance and tend to be larger than a pimple.
Call your doctor if you think you may have an abscess and experience any of the following:
- drainage of any kind
Even though a skin abscess is not usually serious, it is a symptom of an infection, so it requires attention. Luckily, even though skin abscesses are painful and unattractive, they are fairly easy to treat. If a skin abscess is not deemed very serious, your doctor may recommend treating the abscess on your own.
To treat the abscess at home, place a warm compress or cloth on the area. Avoid pushing on it, picking at it, or popping it, which can result in a more serious infection. Usually, applying warmth to the area will cause the abscess to drain in a few days.
However, your doctor may want to treat a skin abscess in his or her office. In those cases, he or she may perform a procedure known as a puncture aspiration.
Your doctor may use an ultrasound or similar test to learn more about the abscess before attempting to treat the problem. An ultrasound provides a doctor with detailed images of the tissues beneath the skin. This can aid in his or her decision on how to treat the abscess.
When you speak to your doctor, tell him or her about any medications you are taking. You may be asked to stop taking certain medicines, including aspirin and blood-thinning drugs, up to one week before the procedure. This is to limit potential risks of bleeding and infection during the draining procedure.
A puncture aspiration is another term for lancing the abscess. In even simpler terms, it means cutting open the abscess to let out the pus and infected material so that the wound can heal. Usually, a doctor will numb the area with medicine, then cut a small opening in the abscess to drain it. The procedure takes about 30 to 45 minutes.
Once the abscess drains, your doctor may “pack” the area with gauze or a similar material. This is done to keep the abscess open, which helps it to continue draining.
Usually, a skin abscess will heal fairly quickly. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be absolutely sure that you finish the entire prescription—don’t stop once you feel better. Many people who receive treatment do not even need antibiotics.
After the abscess begins to drain, the pain level usually subsides right away. Your doctor may ask you to regularly “pack” the wound with gauze, or soak or wash the area and keep it bandaged. In some cases, you may need to limit certain movements for a while. The sore should heal completely in about 14 days.
A few common sense rules can keep you from developing an abscess. First, always practice good personal hygiene, including regularly washing your skin with soap and water. While there are many reasons this is important, one of them is to prevent bacteria from building up on the surface of your skin.
Also, be sure to treat minor wounds and infections promptly. If you suffer a significant wound, seek medical attention immediately, especially if you believe there may be some debris in the wound, or if you have a weakened immune system.