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Skin abscess

Definition

A skin abscess is a collection of pus and infected material in or on the skin.

Alternative Names

Abscess - skin; Cutaneous abscess; Subcutaneous abscess

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

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

Skin abscesses may occur after:

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

Skin abscesses may occur anywhere on the body. They affect people of all ages.

Symptoms

  • Fever or chills, in some cases
  • Local swelling, hardening of tissue (induration)
  • Skin lesion
    • Open or closed sore, domed nodule
    • Red
    • May drain fluid
  • Tender and warm affected area

Signs and tests

Your doctor can diagnose the condition based on the appearance of the area. A culture or examination of any drainage from the lesion may help identify what organism is causing it.

Treatment

Moist heat (such as warm compresses) may speed healing and may help a skin abscess drain. DO NOT push and squeeze on the abscess.

The doctor may cut open and drain the abscess, after placing some numbing medicine in the area. Packing material may be left in wound to help it heal and not close over again..

Antibiotics are given by mouth to control the infection.

Expectations (prognosis)

Most skin abscesses can be cured with proper treatment. More often now, the bacteria does not respond to regular antibiotics. This is called methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA).

Complications

  • Prevention of the proper functioning of nearby tissues
  • Spread of infection around the same area or throughout the body
  • Spread of infection through the bloodstream, causing:
  • Tissue death (gangrene)

Calling your health care provider

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

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

Also call for an appointment if you develop new symptoms during or after treatment for a skin abscess.

Prevention

Prevent and watch for bacterial infections. Keep the skin around minor wounds clean and dry. Consult the health care provider if you develop signs of infection. Treat 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.

Lowell GS, Daum RS. Staphylococcus aureus. In: Long SS, ed. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 115.


Review Date: 10/10/2010
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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