Key Points about Skin Abscesses

  • A skin abscess, or boil, is a pus-filled bump that collects in or below the skin, often on the face, back, chest, and buttocks.
  • Common causes of skin abscesses include the entrance of bacteria into a hair follicle or wound, or ingrown hairs that become infected.
  • Skin abscesses are usually not dangerous and disappear on their own with time, although some cases can lead to life-threatening complications that require immediate treatment.

Overview

A skin abscess, or boil, is a pus-filled bump that collects in or below the skin. Skin abscesses can develop wherever there are hair follicles, but they appear most often on the face, back, chest, and buttocks. They are commonly caused by bacteria entering a hair follicle or wound, or by a hair that becomes infected after it cannot break through the skin’s surface.

Skin abscesses are usually not dangerous and disappear on their own with time. In some cases, they may need to be drained or removed by a doctor. If left untreated, abscesses can spark an infection that spreads throughout your body, and can be life-threatening. Call your doctor if your skin abscess does not go away on its own, or with home treatment.

Skin abscess causes

Skin abscesses can be caused by:

  • Bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, entering a hair follicle or open wound
  • Infected hair follicles, which result when a hair is unable to break through the skin’s surface, and remain trapped underneath

Skin abscess risk factors

You may be more likely to develop a skin abscess if you have:

  • A compromised immune system, such as from diabetes, chemotherapy, alcohol or drug abuse, or cancer
  • Poor hygiene habits
  • Poor blood circulation

Skin abscess symptoms

A skin abscess can resemble a pimple, and be red and sensitive to the touch. Over time, it can grow to develop a visible pocket of fluid, or pus.

You may experience additional symptoms such as a fever, if an abscess progresses to an infection that spreads throughout the body.

Skin abscess complications

While skin abscesses are usually harmless, rare cases can lead to:

  • Infection that spreads from the abscess throughout the body, and can be life-threatening
  • Sepsis, or blood poisoning
  • Additional skin abscesses
  • Tissue death surrounding the abscess, or gangrene
  • MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, infection. MRSA is a strain of bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotic drugs, and its infection can be life-threatening.

Skin abscess diagnosis

When diagnosing a skin abscess, your doctor will conduct a physical examination to determine whether the abscess is caused by a physical wound or by an ingrown hair. In some cases, your doctor may test the abscess’s fluid to look for any harmful bacteria.

If your skin abscesses have been recurrent or chronic, your doctor may perform additional tests to determine whether an existing illness could be contributing to your abscesses.

Skin abscess treatment

Most skin abscesses can be treated at home by applying a warm compress to the area.

If your skin abscess does not improve with home remedies, your physician may:

  • Prescribe antibiotics
  • Drain the liquid from the abscess

When to seek care

Most skin abscesses are harmless, but rare cases can lead to serious complications. Call your doctor if you have a skin abscess, and if you:

  • Are older than 65
  • Are a child
  • Have an immune system that is somehow compromised
  • Are undergoing chemotherapy
  • Had a recent organ transplant

Call your doctor if your abscess fails to heal after two weeks, or if it increases in size and pain over time. You should also contact your doctor if your abscess is accompanied by:

  • A fever
  • Increasing pain, or a throbbing sensation
  • Swollen limbs
  • Red lines spreading from the abscess
  • Severe redness or swelling surrounding the area

Next steps

Your skin abscess should not recur once receiving medical treatment. Recurring skin abscesses may be a sign of an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.