Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
A skin abscess is a localized collection of pus that generally develops in response to infection or to the presence of other foreign materials under the skin. An abscess is typically painful, and it appears as a swollen area that is warm to the touch. The skin surrounding an abscess typically appears pink or red.
Abscesses can develop in many parts of the body, but they usually involve the skin surface. Skin abscesses are often referred to as boils. Common sites affected include the armpits, groin, rectal area (perirectal abscess), the external vaginal area (Bartholin's abscess), and along the tailbone (pilonidal abscess). Inflammation surrounding hair follicles or sweat glands can lead to the formation of abscesses, as well. Abscesses can also affect the brain, kidneys, liver (hepatic abscess), lungs, breast, neck, teeth (dental abscess), and tonsils (peritonsillar abscess).
Unlike other infections, antibiotics alone will not typically cure a skin abscess. In general, abscesses must open and drain to improve. Although sometimes an abscess will open and drain spontaneously, it often needs to be lanced (incision and drainage) by a health-care provider. Certain abscesses may require drainage in an operating room.
Picture of skin abscess; courtesy of the CDC/Bruno Coignard, MD; Jeff Hageman, MHS
Often, a skin abscess will not heal on its own without further intervention by your health-care provider. Initially, an abscess may feel firm and hardened (indurated), at which time incision and drainage may not be possible. However, once the abscess begins to "come to a head" and it becomes more soft and fluctuant, lancing it to evacuate the pus and relieve the pressure is the best course of action. Your health-care provider will open and drain the abscess (incision and drainage) using the following technique.