What Is an Abscess?

An abscess is a tender, easily pressed mass generally surrounded by a colored area from pink to deep red. The middle of an abscess is full of pus and debris. Abscesses are painful and warm to touch and can show up any place on your body:

  • In your armpits
  • Areas around your anus and vagina
  • The base of your spine
  • Around a tooth
  • In your groin
  • Inflammation around a hair follicle can also lead to the formation of an abscess, which is called a boil.

Abscesses are caused by the obstruction of oil glands or sweat glands, inflammation of hair follicles, or from minor breaks and punctures of the skin. Germs get under the skin or into these glands, which causes an inflammatory response as your body’s defenses try to kill these germs.

What Are the Symptoms?

Most often, an abscess becomes a painful, compressible mass that is red, warm to touch, and tender. As some abscesses progress, they may come to a head. They may even rupture.

Most will continue to get worse without care. The infection can spread to the tissues under the skin and even into the bloodstream causing a fever and illness.

When to Seek Medical Care

Call your doctor if any of the following occur with an abscess:

  • You have a sore larger than 1 cm or a half-inch across.
  • The sore continues to enlarge or becomes more painful.
  • You have an underlying illness such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, leukemia, sickle cell disease, or have poor circulation, or if you are an IV drug abuser.
  • You are on steroid therapy or chemotherapy.
  • The sore is on or near your rectal or groin area.
  • You have a fever of 101.5°F or higher.
  • You have a red streak going away from the abscess.

Unlike other infections, antibiotics alone will not cure an abscess. In general an abscess must be opened and drained in order for it to improve. Sometimes draining occurs on its own, but generally it must be opened by a doctor and drained.

Medical Treatment

The doctor will open and drain the abscess.

  • The area around the abscess will be numbed. In general, local anesthesia can make the procedure almost painless. You may be given some type of sedative if the abscess is large.
  • The doctor will then cut open the abscess and totally drain it of pus and debris.
  • Once the sore has drained, the doctor will insert some packing into the remaining cavity to minimize any bleeding and keep it open for a day or two. A bandage will be placed over the packing, and you will be given instructions as to home care.

Most people feel better immediately after the abscess is drained. If you are still experiencing pain, ask the doctor for some pain pills for home use over the next 1-2 days. Follow carefully any instructions your doctor gives you. Be sure to keep all follow-up appointments. Report any fever or increased pain to your doctor immediately.