Common Symptoms Causes and Treatments for Skin Abscesses

A close up of a foot

A skin abscess, also called a boil, is a bump that appears within or below the skin’s surface. This bump is usually full of pus or translucent fluid. It’s typically due to a bacterial infection.

A skin abscess may appear on any part of the body. However, abscesses most commonly develop on the back, face, chest, or buttocks. Skin abscesses can also appear in areas of hair growth, such as the underarms or groin.

Most skin abscesses are harmless and may go away without treatment. Over-the-counter (OTC) creams and medications may be all that’s needed to help speed the healing process of a minor abscess. Sometimes, skin abscesses are more difficult to treat and may require laceration or drainage.

There are cases in which an abscess can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening complications if left untreated.

Common causes of a skin abscess

A man holding a cat
  • Bacteria

Staphylococcus is the most common bacterial cause of skin abscesses. A skin abscess can be the result of a bacterial infection 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.

  • a chronic skin disease, like acne or eczema
  • diabetes
  • a weakened immune system, which can be caused by infections such as HIV
  • poor hygiene habits
  • Infected hair follicles

Infected hair follicles, or 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.

Identifying a skin abscess

A close up of a hand

An abscess often appears as a bump on the skin, similar to a pimple. However, it can grow over time and resemble a cyst filled with fluid. Depending on the cause of the abscess, other symptoms may also be present. These symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • nausea
  • chills
  • swelling
  • 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.

How to treat a skin abscess

  • Home treatment options

You can usually treat a skin abscess at home. Applying heat to the abscess can help it 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.

  • Drainage

See your doctor if the abscess is stubborn and doesn’t heal using home methods. They may want to drain it. To drain the abscess, your doctor will apply numbing medications and will then cut the abscess open to allow the fluid to come out. After the abscess drains, your doctor will pack the wound with surgical material. This helps it to heal and prevents the abscess from reoccurring. After the procedure is over, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to prevent the wound from becoming infected.

  • Antibiotics

Severe cases of skin abscesses are generally also treated with antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic such as dicloxacillin or cephalexin if you have any of the following:

  • an abscess on the face, which has a higher risk of causing complications
  • cellulitis
  • more than one abscess
  • a compromised immune system
  • If your doctor thinks MRSA is the cause of the abscess, they may prescribe clindamycin or doxycycline to fight the infection.

After treatment, the abscess shouldn’t return.

Subscribe to our monthly Newsletter
Subscribe to our monthly Newsletter