What Is a Skin Abscess?
Picture of drainage of a skin abscess
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 often appears pink or red.
Abscesses can develop in many parts of the body, but they usually involve the skin surface. Skin abscesses are also referred to as boils, especially when they affect the deeper, or subcutaneous, layers of the skin. Common sites affected by abscesses include the armpits (axillary area) and inner thigh (groin), called hidradenitis suppurativa, also known as acne inversa (AI). Other types of abscesses involve the 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 also lead to the formation of abscesses. Abscesses can affect any organ, including the brain, kidneys, liver (hepatic abscess), stomach or intra-abdominal area, lungs, breast, neck, face, cheeks, multiple teeth or an individual tooth (dental abscess), gums, throat, or tonsils (peritonsillar abscess). Abscesses can also occur anywhere on the body, such as the fingers and toes, eyes, shoulders, knees, or a foot/both feet.
An abscess is not the same thing as a cyst. Both are fluid-filled lumps, but an abscess is infected while a cyst is not. However, a cyst can become infected and turn into an 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 a surgical drainage procedure in an operating room.