A skin abscess is a bump within or below the skin’s surface. It is usually full of pus, painful, and may feel thick and swollen. This is typically caused by a bacterial infection.
A skin abscess may appear on any part of your body. It is similar to a pimple but typically larger and deeper under the skin. Abscesses most commonly develop on the:
- lower abdomen
Skin abscesses can also appear in areas of hair growth, such as your underarms or groin.
Most skin abscesses are harmless and may go away without treatment. Over-the-counter (OTC) creams such as topical antibiotic creams and at-home care may decrease swelling and aid in healing in minor cases.
Sometimes, skin abscesses are more difficult to treat and may require laceration (cutting) or drainage. In other cases, oral antibiotics may be prescribed along with prescription washes in addition to draining.
There are cases in which an abscess can lead to serious, potentially life threatening complications if left untreated.
A skin abscess is usually the result of a cut or nick in your skin that allows typical bacteria found on your skin, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, to enter the wound and cause inflammation.
You’re at an increased risk for this bacterial infection if you:
- have close contact with an individual who has a Staphylococcus (staph) infection, which is why these infections are more common in hospitals
- are living with a chronic skin disease, like acne or eczema
- are living with diabetes
- are living with metabolic syndrome
- have a weakened immune system
Other, less common causes of skin abscesses include:
The clinical term for a skin abscess is a cutaneous abscess.
When it comes to skin abscesses, a few common types are:
- boils, which are painful bumps or nodules
- furuncles, which are usually due to an infected hair follicle, are filled with pus, and can spread to the surrounding tissue
- carbuncles, which are clusters of furuncles
In rare cases, an abscess can also form internally.
A few types of internal abscesses include:
- abdominal abscesses
- brain abscesses
- tooth abscesses
- spinal cord abscesses
A skin abscess often appears as a bump on your skin, similar to a pimple.
However, it can grow over time and become red and painful. The area on top of an abscess is usually inflamed, with the center of it feeling soft or “squishy.” The skin around the abscess may also be warm to the touch.
Depending on the cause of the abscess, other symptoms may also be present. These symptoms may include:
- fluid drainage from the abscess
A small, occasional skin abscess can usually be treated at home. However, if you think you have an infection or abscess and any of the following situations apply to you, it’s important to contact a doctor as soon as possible:
- You have a weakened immune system or you were recently hospitalized.
- You have received an organ transplant.
- You’re currently receiving chemotherapy or you recently received chemotherapy.
- The abscess is large, hasn’t healed within 2 weeks, and you also have a fever.
- The abscess appears to be spreading to other parts of your body.
- The abscess is becoming more painful or is throbbing.
- Your skin around the abscess is swollen or extremely red.
Once you’ve made an appointment with your doctor, they will review your medical history and perform a physical examination to visually inspect the abscess.
A complete physical examination is the best way for your doctor to tell if an injury or ingrown hair is the cause of the abscess.
They will also most likely ask you about any associated symptoms, such as a fever.
Even if you’re not certain you have an abscess, it’s important to bring it up with your doctor, as an untreated abscess can lead to serious complications and can become life threatening.
Your doctor may take a culture or a small amount of fluid or pus from the abscess to test for the presence of bacteria. No other testing methods are necessary to diagnose an abscess.
However, your doctor may decide to do a blood test to rule out the possibility of sepsis.
You can book an appointment with a primary care doctor in your area using our Healthline FindCare tool.
In some cases, an abscess may cause serious complications. These may include:
- fever and swollen lymph nodes
spread of the infection
- blood poisoning, or sepsis
- endocarditis, which is an infection of the inner lining of the heart
- development of carbuncles or multiple abscesses
- tissue death in the area of the abscess
- acute bone infection, or osteomyelitis
Home treatment options
You can usually treat a skin abscess at home. Applying heat to the abscess can help it shrink and drain.
The most useful way of applying heat is to put a warm compress on the abscess. You can make a warm compress by running warm water on a face towel and folding it before placing it on the abscess several times a day for about 10 minutes at a time.
Contact your doctor if the abscess doesn’t heal using home methods. They may want to drain it.
To drain the abscess, your doctor will apply a local numbing substance, such as lidocaine, and will then cut the abscess open to allow the fluid to come out. The open abscess is then washed out with saline.
After the abscess drains, your doctor will pack the wound with surgical material. This helps it to heal and prevents the abscess from reoccurring.
After the procedure is over, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to prevent the wound from becoming infected.
Your doctor might prescribe an oral antibiotic depending on the appearance and symptoms of the abscess. The antibiotics that are typically prescribed in this instance include:
- trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim)
In some cases, an individual with comorbid conditions (which occur at the same time) or severe infection may require hospitalization and will be given antibiotics through their vein.
After treatment, the abscess shouldn’t return.
You may not always be able to prevent a skin abscess. However, there are ways to minimize your chance of getting the staph infection that commonly leads to an abscess.
To minimize your risk of a staph infection:
- Wash your hands regularly.
- Clean all cuts and scrapes, even small ones, with soap and water and apply an OTC antibacterial ointment.
- Keep your cuts and wounds bandaged.
- Avoid smoking.
- Eat a nutrient-rich diet.
It’s also best not to share personal items, such as:
- athletic equipment
If you do have a cut or sore, wash your bedding and towels in hot water, detergent, and bleach regularly, and dry them on the hot setting if you can.