Skin Abscess

Symptoms: 

Signs of a skin abscess can include:

  • A smooth swelling under your skin that can feel hard or firm
  • Pain and tenderness in the affected area
  • Warmth and redness in the affected area
  • A visible build-up of white or yellow pus under the skin in the affected area
  • A high temperature (fever)
  • Chills

A boil is a common example of a skin abscess.

Tests to diagnose: 

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 main treatment options include:

  • Antibiotics
  • A drainage procedure
  • Surgery

Skin abscesses

Some small skin abscesses may drain naturally and get better without the need for treatment. Applying heat in the form of a warm compress, such as a warm flannel, may help reduce any swelling and speed up healing.

However, the flannel should be thoroughly washed afterwards and not used by other people, to avoid spreading the infection.

For larger or persistent skin abscesses, your GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics to help clear the infection and prevent it from spreading.

A course of antibiotics will usually start before a specific type of bacteria has been identified, so "broad-spectrum" antibiotics will initially be given. These are designed to work against a wide range of known infectious bacteria and will usually cure most common infections. Once a specific bacterium has been identified from a pus sample, a more "focused" antibiotic can be used.

Sometimes, especially with recurrent infections, you may need to wash off all the bacteria from your body to prevent re-infection (decolonisation). This can be done using antiseptic soap for most of your body and an antibiotic cream for the inside of your nose.

However, antibiotics alone may not be enough to clear a skin abscess, and the pus will need to be drained to clear the infection. If a skin abscess is not drained, it may continue to grow and fill with pus until it bursts, which can be very painful and can cause the infection to spread or recur.

Incision and drainage

If your skin abscess needs draining, you will probably have a small operation carried out under anaesthetic – usually a local anaesthetic, where you remain awake and the area around the abscess is numbed.

During the procedure, the surgeon will make a cut (incision) in the abscess, to allow the pus to drain out. They may also take a sample of pus for testing.

Once all of the pus has been removed, the surgeon will clean the hole that is left by the abscess using sterile saline (a salt solution).

The abscess will be left open but covered with a wound dressing, so if any more pus is produced it can drain away easily. If the abscess is deep, an antiseptic dressing (gauze wick) may be placed inside the wound to keep it open.

The procedure may leave a small scar.

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.