What Is an Abscess?

An abscess is the body's way of trying to heal from an infection. Abscesses form after bacteria, fungi, or other germs enter the body — usually through an open wound like a cut — and cause an infection.

When this happens, the body's immune system is activated and sends out white blood cells to fight the infection. It's these white blood cells, along with other debris, that can collect in the wound and make pus. When pus collects and can't drain out, the area forms a painful abscess.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Abscesses?

Abscesses usually are red, swollen, and warm to the touch, and might leak fluid. They can develop on top of the skin, under the skin, in a tooth, or even deep inside the body. On top of the skin, an abscess might look like an unhealed wound or a pimple; underneath the skin, it may create a swollen bump. The area can be painful and tender.

In the most severe cases, the infection can cause fever and chills.

Diagram showing bacteria and pus under the skin, forming an abscess.

Who Gets Abscesses?

Kids are more prone to abscesses because they're less likely to clean and care for their cuts and other wounds, putting them at risk for these types of infections.

Foreign objects that get inside a wound, like sand or clothing fibers, also can lead to abscesses, as can irritated hair follicles.

How Are Abscesses Treated?

Most abscesses can be treated at home. Make sure your child avoids touching, pushing, popping, or squeezing the abscess because that can spread the infection or push it deeper inside the body, making things worse.

Prevent the spread of infection by not letting your child share clothes, towels, washcloths, sheets, or anything else that may have touched the abscess.

To help the abscess open up and drain, try applying a warm compress. You can make a compress by wetting a washcloth with warm (not hot) water and placing it over the abscess for several minutes. Do this a few times a day. Always wash your hands well before and after touching the abscess.

If the abscess opens on its own and drains, and the infection seems to clear up in a couple of days, your child should be OK. But if it doesn't heal, make an appointment with your doctor.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • Your child's abscess doesn't heal with home treatment.
  • The abscess becomes more painful, swollen, and red.
  • Red streaks develop around the infected area.
  • Your child has a fever or chills.
  • Your child is suddenly getting sicker or feels more tired.

The doctor will examine the abscess to see if it needs to be drained. If it does, this will be done by making a small cut in the abscess that lets the pus seep out. Medicine is given beforehand to numb the area. Then, gauze might be applied to absorb the fluid in the wound and help the area heal. If your child has this procedure, make sure to follow instructions about the cleaning and bandaging of the wound.

The doctor may prescribe antibiotic liquid or pills to treat the infection. If so, be sure your child takes all the medicine until it's gone — even if he or she starts feeling better.

Call the doctor if the wound doesn't begin to heal after a few days, or if it comes back.

A Note About MRSA

Some skin infections are caused by MRSA bacteria. This germ is difficult to treat because of resistance to certain antibiotics and can be life-threatening. The good news is that MRSA infections are rare. However, your doctor will keep MRSA in mind while treating a skin abscess, especially if it doesn't heal properly.

Can Abscesses Be Prevented?

Good hygiene is the best way to avoid infection. Keep all cuts and wounds clean, dry, and covered with a bandage to protect them from germs.

Teach kids to wash their hands often and well, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't handy, it's OK to use alcohol-based instant hand sanitizers or wipes.

Back to Articles


Related Articles

Abscess

People can get abscesses on the skin, under the skin, in a tooth, or even inside the body. Most abscesses are caused by infection, so it can help to know what to do. Find out in this article for teens.

Read More

Peritonsillar Abscess

Older kids and teens with tonsilitis sometimes develop this painful abscess, a pus-filled tissue at the back of the mouth.

Read More

MRSA

MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. Simple precautions can help protect your kids from becoming infected.

Read More

Why Do I Need to Wash My Hands?

Washing your hands is the best way to stop germs from spreading. Learn all about the best way to wash your hands in this article for kids.

Read More

Hand Washing: Why It's So Important

Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself.

Read More

Wound Healing and Care

How well a wound heals depends on where it is on the body and what caused it – as well as how well someone cares for the wound at home. Find out what to do in this article for teens.

Read More

Peritonsillar Abscess

A peritonsillar abscess is an area of pus-filled tissue at the back of the mouth, next to one of the tonsils. Find out how it happens and what to do.

Read More

MRSA

MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. The good news is that there are some simple ways to protect yourself from being infected. Find out how.

Read More

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a skin infection that involves areas of tissue just below the skin's surface. It can affect any part of the body, but it's most common on exposed areas, such as the face, arms, or lower legs.

Read More

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and underlying tissues that can affect any area of the body. It begins in an area of broken skin, like a cut or scratch.

Read More

Paronychia

Paronychia is an infection of the skin around a fingernail or toenail. Most of the time, it's not serious and can be treated at home. Learn what causes it, what to do, and how to prevent it.

Read More

Wound Drainage Culture

Doctors order wound drainage cultures when they suspect wounds are infected.

Read More

Paronychia

Paronychia is an infection of the skin around a fingernail or toenail. Most of the time, it's not serious. Find out what causes it, what to do, and how to prevent it.

Read More

Germs: Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, and Protozoa

Germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease - and they're so small that they can creep into your system without you noticing. Find out how to protect yourself.

Read More

Hand Washing: Why It's So Important

Washing your hands well and often is the best way to keep from getting sick. Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids.

Read More

Cuts, Scratches, and Scrapes

Most small cuts, scrapes, or abrasions heal on their own. Here are tips for teens on how to treat cuts at home - and when to get medical help.

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

Search our entire site.