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Skin abscess

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

Alternative Names

Abscess - skin; Cutaneous abscess; Subcutaneous abscess

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Skin abscesses are common. They occur when an infection causes pus to collect in the skin.

Skin abscesses may occur after:

  • A bacterial infection (often staphylococcus)
  • A minor wound or injury

A skin abscess may occur anywhere on the body. The problem affects people of all ages.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Fever or chills, in some cases
  • Local swelling around the infected spot
  • Hard of tissue (induration )
  • Skin lesion that may be an open or closed sore, or domed nodule
  • Redness, tenderness, and warmth in the area
  • Fluid drainage

Signs 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.

The health care provider may cut open the abscess and drain it.

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

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

Expectations (prognosis)

Most skin abscesses can be cured with proper treatment. Infections caused by methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) are do not respond to regular antibiotics and need special medicines.

Complications

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

Calling your health care provider

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

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

Talk to your health care provider if you develop new symptoms during or after treatment for a skin abscess.

Prevention

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

References

Pasternack MS, Swartz MN. Cellulitis, necrotizing fasciitis, and subcutaneous tissue infections. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 90.

Daum RS. Staphylococcus aureus. In: Long SS, ed. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 115.

Updated: 11/20/2012

Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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