An abscess is a buildup of a pus that can affect any part of your body. There are many different types of abscesses. They can occur on your skin, in your mouth or around your organs. Skin abscesses may look red and swollen. Bacterial infections usually cause abscesses. Treatment often includes surgical drainage.
An abscess is a pocket of pus. Abscesses can form almost anywhere in or on your body. When you get an infection, your body's immune system kicks into action to try to fight it. White blood cells travel to the infected area and build up within the damaged tissue. This buildup leads to inflammation, which causes a pocket to form. The pocket fills with pus, creating an abscess. Pus is made up of living and dead white blood cells, germs, fluid and dead tissue.
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There are many different kinds of abscesses. Abscesses can develop on your skin, in your mouth or around an internal organ.
Skin abscesses (cutaneous abscesses) develop under your skin. They’re common and typically easy to treat. Types of skin abscesses include:
Other abscesses in your mouth may include:
Internal abscesses occur much less frequently than external ones, but can develop on your spinal cord, brain and other organs. Internal abscesses are usually harder to diagnose and treat.
An abscess under your skin is easy to see. It may appear red, raised and swollen. The skin over the center of the abscess may be thin. It may look yellow or white because there’s pus underneath the surface of your skin. The abscess may feel tender and warm to the touch. Other symptoms of a skin abscess include pain, fever and chills.
An abscess in your mouth may cause a severe toothache. A gum abscess looks like swelling on your gums. Sometimes your jaw, floor of your mouth or cheeks may swell as well. Other symptoms of mouth abscesses include:
For deeper skin abscesses or those inside your body, symptoms aren’t as obvious. Some symptoms relate to the part of your body that’s affected. You may experience:
Bacterial infections usually cause abscesses. A bacteria called Staphylococcus causes most abscesses. When bacteria enter your body, your immune system sends white blood cells to go fight the infection. This process causes inflammation, and the tissue nearby dies. When this happens, a pocket forms and fills with pus, creating an abscess.
Rarely, viruses, parasites and fungi can cause abscesses.
Your healthcare provider can diagnose a skin abscess during a physical examination. They’ll look at the abscess and ask about your symptoms. They may collect a sample of the pus from your abscess for testing. With the sample, your healthcare provider can identify the type of bacteria causing the abscess. This can help them decide on the best course of treatment.
Deeper abscesses, including internal abscesses, are harder to diagnose since you can’t see them. Your healthcare provider may need to order imaging tests. These tests may include:
A very small abscess or one close to the surface of your skin may resolve by itself. You may be able to get rid of an abscess by applying a warm compress to the area. It may drain naturally, but you shouldn’t attempt to drain or burst an abscess at home. If you try to squeeze the pus out of an abscess yourself, it can easily spread the bacteria to other areas of your skin.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic. But treatment for an abscess may also require surgical drainage. First, your healthcare provider will apply a local anesthetic to the area around the abscess. With local anesthesia, you’ll stay awake but the area will be numb.
Your healthcare provider will make a tiny cut (incision) in the abscess. They’ll allow the abscess to drain and remove any remaining pus, dead tissue and debris. They’ll leave the abscess open to allow any remaining pus to drain. (For larger abscesses, they may pack the open abscess with gauze.) Then, they’ll apply a clean, dry bandage to the area. The incision will heal on its own. You may have a scar at the incision site. A scar can tell you your abscess is healing.
To get rid of an abscess on your gums, your dentist will perform a surgical drainage procedure. Depending on the severity of the abscess, they may have to perform a root canal or pull any affected teeth (tooth extraction). They may prescribe antibiotics as well.
For internal abscesses, your healthcare provider may perform a needle aspiration. Depending on the location of the abscess, you’ll receive local or general anesthesia. Then, they’ll guide a needle into place using an ultrasound or CT scan. They’ll drain the abscess using the needle. They may make a small incision in your skin and insert a thin plastic tube called a drainage catheter. The catheter allows the abscess to drain into a bag. You may have to leave the bag in place for a week or more.
You can prevent skin abscesses by keeping your skin clean and dry. Bacteria getting into minor wounds cause most skin abscesses. Other steps you can take to prevent skin abscesses include:
Preventing internal abscesses can be more difficult. They are typically complications of other conditions.
Minor skin abscesses may clear up on their own. But you should see your healthcare provider for any abscess that doesn’t go away within a couple of weeks. With treatment, the abscess will have the opportunity to drain properly and clear up. If you don’t get a skin abscess drained, it can continue to grow and fill with pus until it bursts. A burst abscess can be very painful and cause the infection to spread.
Treatment for tooth and other mouth abscesses is especially important. Untreated tooth abscesses can kill you. Untreated infections can spread to surrounding tissues in your body. This can cause serious complications including sepsis and necrotizing fasciitis, which can lead to death.
The outlook for internal abscesses depends on the location and treatment.
If you’ve had surgical drainage for a skin abscess, you should assess your wound each day. You may need to repack the wound with your healthcare provider’s instructions. You’ll have to change your dressing as needed. Any access drainage should stop within a couple of days. Pain from the wound will gradually go away. The abscess should heal completely within two weeks.
Your healthcare provider may schedule a follow-up appointment to examine or repack your abscess. Make sure to keep all appointments. If you have any of the following symptoms, see your healthcare provider right away:
A boil (furuncle) is an abscess that forms at the site of a sweat gland or hair follicle and affects the surrounding tissue. Boils are smaller and closer to the surface of the skin than typical skin abscesses. Boils are commonly found on your neck, chest, face and buttocks. Boils are particularly painful in sensitive areas including your nose, ears and fingers.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Abscesses are pockets of pus that can occur anywhere on your body. Skin abscesses are common. You may be able to treat a skin abscess at home with warm compresses. But mouth and internal abscesses aren’t something to mess around with. If you have any symptoms of an abscess that hasn’t gone away on its own, talk to your healthcare provider. They can assess your abscess and determine appropriate treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/30/2022.
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