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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, and 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 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.
However, there are cases in which an abscess can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening complications if left untreated.
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.
You’re at increased risk for this bacterial infection if you have:
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. Trapped hair follicles are commonly known as ingrown hairs. Ingrown hairs can set the stage for an infection. Abscesses that are on or in a hair follicle will often contain this ingrown hair.
Folliculitis may also occur after spending time in an inadequately chlorinated pool or hot tub.
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:
The area around the abscess may also feel painful and warm to the touch.
According to the Mayo Clinic, one small boil isn’t usually a cause for concern. You can often treat these abscesses at home. However, if you have a boil and any of the following apply to you, see your doctor as soon as possible:
The doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical examination to visually inspect the abscess. A complete physical examination allows the doctor to tell if an injury or ingrown hair is the cause of the abscess.
The doctor may also take a culture or a small amount of fluid from the abscess to test for the presence of bacteria. No other testing methods are necessary to diagnose an abscess. However, if you’ve had reoccurring skin abscesses and the doctor feels that an underlying medical condition may be the cause, they may take a blood or urine sample.
In some cases, an abscess may cause serious complications. These may include:
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is another potential complication. MRSA is a drug-resistant strain of the bacteria that commonly cause skin abscesses. While there are alternative antibiotics to treat this strain, they don’t always work.
You can usually treat a skin abscess at home. Applying heat to the abscess can help the abscess 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.
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, the doctor will apply numbing medications and will then cut the abscess open to allow the fluid to come out. After the abscess drains, the doctor will pack the wound with surgical material. This helps it to heal and prevents the abscess from reoccurring.
After the procedure is over, the doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to prevent the wound from becoming infected.
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:
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.
You may not always be able to prevent a skin abscess. However, there are ways to minimize your chance of acquiring the staph infection that commonly leads to an abscess. To minimize your risk of a staph infection:
It’s also best not to share personal items, such as towels, sheets, razors, athletic equipment, makeup, and clothing. If you do have a cut or sore, wash your bedding and towels in hot water, detergent, and bleach regularly and dry them on the hot setting.
Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Oct 21, 2015: Steven Kim, MD
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