What Is a Skin Abscess?
A skin abscess, also called a boil, is a bump that appears within and on the surface of the skin. This bump is usually filled with pus or translucent fluid, and is the result of a bacterial infection. A skin abscess may appear on any part of the body. However, they are most commonly found on the back, face, and chest. Skin abscesses can also appear in areas of hair growth, such as the underarms or groin.
In most cases, skin abscesses are harmless and may go away without treatment. For these minor abscesses, over-the-counter creams and medications may be all that is needed to help speed the healing process. 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.
Identifying a Skin Abscess
An abscess appears as a bump on the skin similar to a pimple. However, it can grow over time and resemble a fluid-filled cyst or a skin boil. Depending on what caused 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 touch.
When to Seek Medical Attention
According to the Mayo Clinic, for most adults, one small boil is not usually cause for concern and can often be treated at home (Mayo). However, if any of the following apply to you, see your doctor as soon as possible:
- you are a child or older adult
- you have a weakened immune system or were recently hospitalized
- your skin abscess is located 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 is accompanied by fevers
- the abscess appears to be spreading to other parts of your body
- the abscess is growing more painful and/or is throbbing
- your limbs are swollen
- the skin around the abscess is swollen and/or extremely red
An Abscess and Complications
In some cases, an abscess may cause serious complications. These may include:
- the spread of the infection (sometimes to the brain or spinal cord)
- blood poisoning (sepsis)
- endocarditis (heart inflammation)
- the development of new abscesses
- tissue death in the area (gangrene)
- acute bone infection (osteomyelitis)
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.
Common Causes of a Skin Abscess
A skin abscess is often caused by a bacterial infection (staph) 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.
The following put an individual at an increased risk for this bacterial infection:
- being in close contact with an infected individual (this is why staph infections are more common in hospitals)
- having a chronic skin disease, like acne or eczema
- being diabetic
- having a weakened immune system
- having poor hygiene habits
Infected Hair Follicles
Infected hair follicles (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 called ingrown hairs. Ingrown hairs can set the stage for an infection. Abscesses that are located 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.
Diagnosing the Cause of the Abscess
After going over your medical history, the doctor will perform a physical examination to visually inspect the abscess. By doing a complete physical examination, the doctor will be able to tell if an injury or ingrown hair has caused the abscess to develop.
The doctor may also take a culture or a small amount of fluid from the abscess to test it for the presence of bacteria. No other testing methods are needed 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, he may take a blood or urine sample.
Home treatment is usually enough to treat a skin abscess. 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.
If the abscess is stubborn and doesn’t heal using home methods, see your doctor. He or she 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 reoccurring.
After the procedure is over, the doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics in order to prevent the wound from becoming infected.
After treatment, the abscess should not come back.
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:
- Regularly wash your hands.
- Clean all cuts and scrapes, even small ones, with soap and water. Then, apply an over-the-counter antibacterial ointment.
- Keep your cuts and wounds bandaged.
- Do not share personal items, such as towels, sheets, razors, athletic equipment, makeup, and clothing.
- If you have a cut or sore, wash your bedding and towels regularly in hot water with detergent and bleach, and dry them on the hot setting.