Incision and Drainage: A Simple Procedure to Treat Abscesses

An abscess can occur around a tooth.
An abscess can occur around a tooth. andresr/Getty Images

An abscess is a painful infection that can drive many people to the emergency room. They result when oil-producing or sweat glands are obstructed, and bacteria is trapped. This causes an infection and inflammation along with pain and redness.

Abscesses can form anywhere on the body. Commonly, they are found in the armpits, in the pubic region, at the base of the spine, around a tooth, or around a hair follicle, in which case the abscess is known as a boil.

When an abscess forms, the pain and inflammation can make you want to poke and prod it to try to clear it up on your own. However, doctors strongly caution against this as it often makes the infection worse and can cause lasting complications such as bloodstream infections and scarring.

Instead, visit your friendly dermatologist for a simple and effective procedure known as incision and drainage, or I&D. An abscess will most often not heal on its own or even with antibiotics, and the pus usually needs to be drained to promote healing. An I&D, usually performed right in your doctor's office, can achieve this safely and comfortably.

What Does an I&D Involve?

Using a local anesthetic to numb the area around the abscess so you don't feel pain, a physician then inserts a scalpel or needle into the skin over the pus and the pus is drained. Some abscesses have more than one pocket of pus that must be ruptured to release all of the infected material.

After the pus has drained, the wound will be cleaned and rinsed with saline solution.

If it is not too large or deep, the wound may be packed with gauze bandaging for 24 to 48 hours to absorb any pus or discharge that continues to drain. If an abscess is particularly large or deep, a drain may be placed in the cleaned wound to keep it open and allow it to continue draining as it heals.

The whole procedure usually takes less than an hour, and very few people experience complications. People who smoke or have a condition that weakens the immune system are more likely to experience complications. When complications do occur, they are usually mild and can include:

  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Scarring

After the Procedure

After the I&D is completed and you are sent home, you should carefully follow your physician's directions about changing bandages and cleaning the wound. You may also be given antibiotics and told to take pain medicine as needed. If you notice any signs of infection, such as worsening pain, redness, swelling, bleeding, or fever, you should call your doctor immediately.


Habif, Thomas. "Bacterial Infections." Clinical Dermatology, 4th Edition. Ed. Thomas Habif, MD. New York: Mosby, 2004. 285.

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