What Is a Skin Abscess?
A skin abscess, also called a boil, is a bump that appears within
or below the skin’s surface. This bump is usually full of pus or translucent
fluid, and it’s typically due to a bacterial infection. A skin abscess may
appear on any part of the body. However, abscesses most commonly develop on the
back, face, chest, or buttocks. Skin abscesses can also appear in areas of hair
growth, such as the underarms or groin.
Most skin abscesses are harmless and may go away without
treatment. Over-the-counter creams and medications may be all that’s needed to
help speed the healing process of a minor abscess. Sometimes, skin abscesses
are more difficult to treat and may require laceration or drainage.
However, there are cases in which an abscess can lead to serious,
potentially life-threatening complications if left untreated.
Common Causes of a Skin Abscess
Staphylococcus is the
most common bacterial cause of skin abscesses. A skin abscess can be the result
of a bacterial infection that occurs when Staphylococcus aureus bacteria
enter the body through a hair follicle or through a wound or injury that has
punctured or broken the skin.
You’re at increased risk for this bacterial infection if you
- close contact with an infected individual (which
is why staph infections are more common in hospitals)
- a chronic skin disease, like acne or eczema
- a weakened immune system, which can be caused by
infections such as HIV
- poor hygiene habits
Infected Hair Follicles
Infected hair follicles, or folliculitis, may cause abscesses to
form in the follicle. Follicles can become infected if the hair within the
follicle is trapped and unable to break through the skin, as can happen after
shaving. Trapped hair follicles are commonly known as ingrown hairs. Ingrown
hairs can set the stage for an infection. Abscesses that are on or in a hair
follicle will often contain this ingrown hair.
Folliculitis may also occur after spending time in an
inadequately chlorinated pool or hot tub.
Identifying a Skin Abscess
An abscess often appears as a bump on the skin, similar to a
pimple. However, it can grow over time and resemble a cyst filled with fluid.
Depending on the cause of the abscess, other symptoms may also be present.
These symptoms may include:
- lesions on the skin
- inflamed skin
- fluid drainage from the abscess
The area around the abscess may also feel painful and warm to the
Diagnosing an Abscess
According to the Mayo
Clinic, one small boil isn’t usually a cause for concern. You can often
treat these abscesses at home. However, if you have a boil and any of the
following apply to you, see your doctor as soon as possible:
- You’re a child or you’re over the age of 65.
- You have a weakened immune system or you were
- You have received an organ transplant.
- You’re currently on chemotherapy or you recently
- Your skin abscess is on your face or spine. (If
left untreated, the abscess may spread to your brain or spinal cord.)
- The abscess is large, hasn’t healed within two 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
- Your limbs are swollen.
- Your skin around the abscess is swollen or
The doctor will review your medical history and perform a
physical examination to visually inspect the abscess. A complete physical
examination allows the doctor to tell if an injury or ingrown hair is the cause
of the abscess.
The doctor may also take a culture or a small amount of fluid
from the abscess to test for the presence of bacteria. No other testing methods
are necessary to diagnose an abscess. However, if you’ve had reoccurring skin
abscesses and the doctor feels that an underlying medical condition may be the
cause, they may take a blood or urine sample.
Complications of a Skin Abscess
In some cases, an abscess may cause serious complications. These
- the spread of the infection, potentially to the
brain or spinal cord
- blood poisoning, or sepsis
- endocarditis, which is an infection of the inner
lining of the heart
- the development of new abscesses
- tissue death in the area of the abscess, such as
- an acute bone infection, or osteomyelitis
Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is another
potential complication. MRSA is a drug-resistant strain of the bacteria that
commonly cause skin abscesses. While there are alternative antibiotics to treat
this strain, they don’t always work.
How to Treat a Skin Abscess
You can usually treat a skin abscess at home. Applying heat to
the abscess can help the abscess 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.
See your doctor if the abscess is stubborn and doesn’t heal using
home methods. They may want to drain it. To drain the abscess, the doctor will
apply numbing medications and will then cut the abscess open to allow the fluid
to come out. After the abscess drains, the doctor will pack the wound with
surgical material. This helps it to heal and prevents the abscess from
After the procedure is over, the doctor will likely prescribe
antibiotics to prevent the wound from becoming infected.
Severe cases of skin abscesses are generally also treated with
antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic such as dicloxacillin or
cephalexin if you have any of the following:
- an abscess on the face, which has a higher risk
of causing complications
- more than one abscess
- a compromised immune system
If your doctor thinks MRSA is the cause of the abscess, they may
prescribe clindamycin or doxycycline to fight the infection.
After treatment, the abscess shouldn’t return.
How to Prevent a Skin Abscess
You may not always be able to prevent a skin abscess. However,
there are ways to minimize your chance of acquiring 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 over-the-counter antibacterial ointment.
- Keep your cuts and wounds bandaged.
It’s also best not to share personal items, such as towels,
sheets, razors, athletic equipment, makeup, and clothing. 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.