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Classification and external resources
ICD-9682.9, 324.1
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Classification and external resources
ICD-9682.9, 324.1
Ultrasound image of breast abscess

An abscess (Latin: abscessus) is a collection of pus (neutrophils) that has accumulated within a tissue because of an inflammatory process in response to either an infectious process (usually caused by bacteria or parasites) or other foreign materials (e.g., splinters, bullet wounds, or injecting needles). It is a defensive reaction of the tissue to prevent the spread of infectious materials to other parts of the body.

The organisms or foreign materials kill the local cells, resulting in the release of cytokines. The cytokines trigger an inflammatory response, which draws large numbers of white blood cells to the area and increases the regional blood flow.

The final structure of the abscess is an abscess wall, or capsule, that is formed by the adjacent healthy cells in an attempt to keep the pus from infecting neighboring structures. However, such encapsulation tends to prevent immune cells from attacking bacteria in the pus, or from reaching the causative organism or foreign object.

Abscesses must be differentiated from empyemas, which are accumulations of pus in a preexisting rather than a newly formed anatomical cavity.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

The cardinal symptoms and signs of any kind of inflammatory process are redness, heat, swelling, pain and loss of function. Abscesses may occur in any kind of solid tissue but most frequently on skin surface (where they may be superficial pustules (boils) or deep skin abscesses), in the lungs, brain, teeth, kidneys and tonsils. Major complications are spreading of the abscess material to adjacent or remote tissues and extensive regional tissue death (gangrene). Abscesses in most parts of the body rarely heal themselves, so prompt medical attention is indicated at the first suspicion of an abscess. An abscess could potentially be fatal (although this is rare) if it compresses vital structures such as the trachea in the context of a deep neck abscess.[citation needed]

If superficial, abscesses may be fluctuant when palpated. This is a wave-like motion which is caused by movement of the pus inside the abscess.[1]


Wound abscesses can be treated with antibiotics. They require surgical intervention, debridement, and curettage.[2]

Incision and drainage[edit]

Five day old Abscess. Notice the black dot pertaining to the infection on hair follicle.
Abscess five days after incision and drainage.
Abscess following curettage.

The abscess should be inspected to identify if foreign objects are a cause, which may require their removal. If foreign objects are not the cause, a doctor will incise and drain the abscess and prescribe painkillers and possibly antibiotics.[3]

Surgical drainage of the abscess (e.g., lancing) is usually indicated once the abscess has developed from a harder serous inflammation to a softer pus stage. This is expressed in the Latin medical aphorism: Ubi pus, ibi evacua.

In critical areas where surgery presents a high risk, it may be delayed or used as a last resort. The drainage of a lung abscess may be performed by positioning the patient in a way that enables the contents to be discharged via the respiratory tract. Warm compresses and elevation of the limb may be beneficial for a skin abscess.


In North America, after drainage, an abscess cavity is often packed. However, there is no evidence to support this practice and it may in fact delay healing.[4] To try to answer this question more definitely, a randomized double-blind study was started in September 2008 and was completed in March 2010.[5] Interim analysis of data from this study suggests that "wound packing may significantly increase the failure rates." [6] A small pilot study has found no benefit from packing of simple cutaneous abscesses.[7]

Primary closure[edit]

Primary closure has been successful when combined with curettage and antibiotics[8] or with curettage alone.[9] However, another randomized controlled trial found primary closure led to 35% failing to heal primarily and primary closure longer median number of days to closure (8.9 versus 7.8).[10]

In anorectal abscesses, primary closure healed faster, but 25% of abscesses healed by secondary intention and recurrence was higher.[11]


As Staphylococcus aureus bacteria is a common cause, an anti-staphylococcus antibiotic such as flucloxacillin or dicloxacillin is used. With the emergence of community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), these traditional antibiotics may be ineffective; alternative antibiotics effective against community-acquired MRSA often include clindamycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and doxycycline. These antibiotics may also be prescribed to patients with a documented allergy to penicillin. (If the condition is thought to be cellulitis rather than abscess, consideration should be given to possibility of strep species as cause that are still sensitive to traditional anti-staphylococcus agents such as dicloxacillin or cephalexin in patients able to tolerate penicillin). It is important to note that antibiotic therapy alone without surgical drainage of the abscess is seldom effective due to antibiotics often being unable to get into the abscess and their ineffectiveness at low pH levels. Whilst most medical texts advocate surgical incision some medical doctors will treat small abscesses conservatively with antibiotics.

Recurrent infections[edit]

Recurrent abscesses are often caused by community-acquired MRSA. While resistant to most beta lactam antibiotics commonly used for skin infections, it remains sensitive to alternative antibiotics, e.g., clindamycin (Cleocin), trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim), and doxycycline (unlike hospital-acquired MRSA that may only be sensitive to vancomycin IV).

To prevent recurrent infections due to Staphylococcus, consider the following measures:

Magnesium sulfate paste[edit]

Historically abscesses as well as boils and many other collections of pus have been treated via application of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) paste. This works by drawing the infected pus to the surface of the skin before rupturing and leaking out. After this the body will usually repair the old infected cavity. Magnesium sulfate is therefore best applied at night with a sterile dressing covering it, as the rupture itself is not painful but the drawing up may be uncomfortable.

Perianal abscess[edit]

Perianal abscesses can be seen in patients with for example inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn's disease) or diabetes. Often the abscess will start as an internal wound caused by ulceration, hard stool or penetrative objects with insufficient lubrication. This wound typically becomes infected as a result of the normal presence of feces in the rectal area, and then develops into an abscess. This often presents itself as a lump of tissue near the anus which grows larger and more painful with time. Like other abscesses, perianal abscesses may require prompt medical treatment, such as an incision and debridement or lancing.

Other types of abscess[edit]

The following types of abscess are listed in the medical dictionary:[14]

  • acute abscess
  • alveolar abscess
  • amebic abscess
  • apical abscess
  • apical periodontal abscess
  • appendiceal abscess
  • Bartholin abscess
  • Bezold abscess
  • bicameral abscess
  • bone abscess
  • Brodie abscess
  • bursal abscess
  • caseous abscess
  • cheesy abscess
  • cholangitic abscess
  • chronic abscess
  • cold abscess
  • crypt abscesses
  • dental abscess
  • diffuse abscess
  • Douglas abscess
  • dry abscess
  • Dubois abscesses
  • embolic abscess
  • fecal abscess
  • follicular abscess
  • gas abscess
  • gingival abscess
  • gravitation abscess
  • gummatous abscess
  • hematogenous abscess
  • hot abscess
  • hypostatic abscess
  • ischiorectal abscess
  • lateral alveolar abscess
  • lateral periodontal abscess
  • mastoid abscess
  • metastatic abscess
  • migrating abscess
  • miliary abscess
  • Munro abscess
  • orbital abscess
  • otitic abscess
  • palatal abscess
  • pancreatic abscess
  • parafrenal abscess
  • parametric abscess
  • paranephric abscess
  • parapharyngeal abscess
  • parotid
  • Pautrier
  • pelvic
  • perforating
  • periapical
  • periappendiceal
  • periarticular
  • pericemental
  • pericoronal abscess
  • perinephric
  • periodontal abscess
  • perirectal
  • peritonsillar abscess
  • periureteral abscess
  • periurethral abscess
  • phlegmonous abscess
  • Pott abscess
  • premammary abscess
  • psoas abscess
  • pulp abscess
  • pyemic abscess
  • radicular abscess
  • residual abscess
  • retrobulbar abscess
  • retrocecal abscess
  • retropharyngeal abscess
  • ring abscess
  • root abscess
  • satellite abscess
  • septicemic abscess
  • stellate abscess
  • stercoral abscess
  • sterile abscess
  • stitch abscess
  • subdiaphragmatic abscess
  • subepidermal abscess
  • subhepatic abscess
  • subperiosteal abscess
  • subphrenic abscess
  • subungual abscess
  • sudoriferous abscess
  • suture abscess
  • thymic abscesses
  • Tornwaldt abscess
  • tropical abscess
  • tuboovarian abscess
  • verminous abscess
  • wandering abscess
  • worm abscess

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Churchill Livingstone medical dictionary. (16th ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. 2008. ISBN 9780080982458. 
  2. ^ McLatchie G, Leaper D, ed. (2007). Oxford Handbook of Clinical Surgery (2nd ed.). Oxford: OUP. 
  3. ^ Green, James; Saj Wajed (2000). Surgery: Facts and Figures. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1-900151-96-0. 
  4. ^ "BestBets: abscesses; to pack or not to pack". 
  5. ^ ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00746109 Study of Wound Packing After Superficial Skin Abscess Drainage
  6. ^ "Randomized Clinical Trial of Packing Following Incision and Drainage of Superficial Skin Abscesses in the Pediatric Emergency Department". 
  7. ^ O'Malley GF, Dominici P, Giraldo P, et al. (April 2009). "Routine Packing of Simple Cutaneous Abscesses Is Painful and Probably Unnecessary". Acad Emerg Med 16 (5): 470–3. doi:10.1111/j.1553-2712.2009.00409.x. PMID 19388915. 
  8. ^ Abraham N, Doudle M, Carson P (1997). "Open versus closed surgical treatment of abscesses: a controlled clinical trial". The Australian and New Zealand journal of surgery 67 (4): 173–6. doi:10.1111/j.1445-2197.1997.tb01934.x. PMID 9137156. 
  9. ^ Stewart MP, Laing MR, Krukowski ZH (1985). "Treatment of acute abscesses by incision, curettage and primary suture without antibiotics: a controlled clinical trial". The British journal of surgery 72 (1): 66–7. doi:10.1002/bjs.1800720125. PMID 3881155. 
  10. ^ Simms MH, Curran F, Johnson RA, et al. (1982). "Treatment of acute abscesses in the casualty department". British medical journal (Clinical research ed.) 284 (6332): 1827–9. doi:10.1136/bmj.284.6332.1827. PMC 1498721. PMID 6805714. 
  11. ^ Kronborg O, Olsen H (1984). "Incision and drainage v. incision, curettage and suture under antibiotic cover in anorectal abscess. A randomized study with 4-year follow-up". Acta Chirurgica Scandinavica 150 (8): 689–92. PMID 6397949. 
  12. ^ Raz R, Miron D, Colodner R, Staler Z, Samara Z, Keness Y (1996). "A 1-year trial of nasal mupirocin in the prevention of recurrent staphylococcal nasal colonization and skin infection". Arch Intern Med 156 (10): 1109–12. doi:10.1001/archinte.156.10.1109. PMID 8638999. 
  13. ^ Watanakunakorn C, Axelson C, Bota B, Stahl C (1995). "Mupirocin ointment with and without chlorhexidine baths in the eradication of Staphylococcus aureus nasal carriage in nursing home residents". Am J Infect Control 23 (5): 306–9. doi:10.1016/0196-6553(95)90061-6. PMID 8585642. 
  14. ^ "Abscess". Medical Dictionary - Dictionary of Medicine and Human Biology. Retrieved 2013-01-24. 

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