How They're Caused & Treated

An illustration of a boil forming under the skin.
An illustration of a boil forming under the skin. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

A skin abscess, also known as a boil, is a walled-off, bump-like collection of pus that appears either within or below the surface of the skin. Abscesses are typically caused from a bacterial infection. They most often appear on the back, face, chest and buttocks. Sometimes they occur in areas where hair is present, such as the armpits and pubic area.

Abscesses that appear in areas of friction or minor trauma, such as underneath the belt or on the front of the thighs, buttocks, groin and armpits, are called furuncles or carbuncles.

What Causes Abscesses?

Abscesses are caused either by bacteria or infected hair follicles. Bacteria is typically to blame. Staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacteria that exists on the skin and inside the nose, penetrates the body through a hair follicle or punctured or broken skin, like a cut or even a bug bite. In addition, you're more at risk for developing this staph infection if you have:

  • a chronic skin condition, like acne or eczema
  • diabetes
  • a weakened immune system
  • come is close contact with an infected individual
  • poor hygiene habits

Infected hair follicles, known as folliculitis, can cause abscesses to form inside the hair follicle. Follicles become infected if the hair becomes trapped underneath the surface of the skin and can't break through, known as ingrown hairs, which happens during shaving. Folliculitis can also occur after swimming in an improperly chlorinated pool or hot tub.

Symptoms & Appearance of Abscesses

An abscess looks like a little bump or pimple.

Over time, however, it can grow to resemble a fluid-filled cyst. The skin surrounding an abscess can also hurt and feel warm to the touch. An indurated abscess might feel firm and hard to the touch. Depending on what's causing the abscess, other symptoms might be present, including:

  • fever
  • nausea
  • swelling
  • redness and inflammation
  • fluid leakage

How Abscesses Are Diagnosed

A small abscess typically isn't medical emergency. In fact, it can often be treated with home remedies. If you see a doctor, they should be able to provide a diagnosis based on appearance alone. However, if you have recurring abscesses or if you've tried a remedy yourself and the abscess hasn't responded, you should see a doctor. You should also see a doctor if the abscess:

  • is on your face
  • is one of a few abscesses
  • is extremely painful
  • worsens rapidly
  • you have a fever
  • is more than 2 inches in diameter
  • reappears
  • has persisted for at least 2 weeks

Abscess Treatment Methods

Unfortunately the bacterias that cause abscesses have developed a resistance to certain antibiotics. A doctor might need to send a sample to a lab for testing to determine which kind of antibiotic will work most effectively. A doctor might also drain a larger abscess to alleviate pain.

Small abscesses can be treated at home with a warm compress to relieve pain and promote drainage.

Do not try to drain an abscess on your own, otherwise you could end up worsening the infection. Be sure to throughly wash your hands after touching an abscess, and clean anything that has come in contact with it, including clothing and compresses. If the abscess reappears, worsens rapidly or exhibits any of the signs listed above, see a doctor.

How to Prevent Abscesses

Abscesses aren't 100 percent preventable, but there are a few measure you can take to avoid them. Always wash your hands. Treat any cuts with care. Keep them clean, covered and dry until they heal. Abscesses are caused by staph infections, and staph infections can be spread person to person and through objects. Don't share personal items like razors, towels and athletic equipment.




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