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6-minute read

Key facts

  • An abscess occurs when your body 'walls off' a collection of pus and bacteria under the skin or in other areas of your body.
  • Abscesses usually happen because of a bacterial infection.
  • Common sites for abscesses include in your armpits, around a tooth or around your anus, vagina or groin.
  • Symptoms of an abscess may include swelling, redness, pain and fever.
  • Abscesses usually need medical treatment to prevent further infection.

What is an abscess?

An abscess occurs when your body 'walls off' a collection of pus and bacteria under the skin or in other areas of your body.

They can occur almost anywhere in the body and are usually painful. See your doctor if you think you might have an abscess, as you will usually need treatment to heal an abscess and to stop the infection spreading.

What are the different types of abscesses?

There are many different types of abscesses, including:

  • skin abscesses or boils — these affect the face, throat, armpits or groin
  • dental abscesses — inside the tooth or gum
  • pilonidal abscesses or cysts — in the crease of the buttocks
  • anal or perianal abscesses — around the anus
  • breast abscesses —usually result from a breast infection (mastitis) that is not treated quickly
  • vaginal abscesses — also called Bartholin's cysts

Abscesses can also develop in other parts of the body, such as the brain, kidney, or other organs, usually as a complication of an existing medical condition.

What are the symptoms of an abscess?

Abscesses are usually sore, red and swollen. Depending where your abscess is, you may also have swollen glands (lymph nodes), have a fever or feel generally unwell.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the diabetes Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes an abscess?

Abscesses usually form when your immune system tries to contain a bacterial infection. As it is fighting the infection, pus (a liquid or semi-liquid mixture of bacteria and dead cells) is made. Your body tries to stop it from spreading by forming a 'wall' or capsule of tissue to contain it. This is the abscess.

Abscesses can also form as a result of non-bacterial infections, ingrown hairs or a blocked gland or duct.

How are abscesses treated?

Small abscesses can sometimes burst and heal on their own. However, large or internal abscesses need to be drained by a doctor. Some abscesses can be drained by your doctor in the clinic, but other cases may need surgery.

You may also need to take antibiotics. Once an abscess has drained, it usually heals quickly and doesn't cause long-term problems.

How can I look after my abscess?

If you have an abscess, follow instructions from your doctor on taking care of it. It's usually a good idea to cover it with a bandage, but this may depend on where the abscess is. Always wash your hands with soap and water for 10 to 15 seconds before you change the bandage.

You can take pain medicine to reduce your pain. Make sure to tell your doctor what medicine you're taking, and how often you're using it.

If you have an abscess that hasn't been drained, you can use heat to relieve symptoms.

Put a clean towel over the abscess and use a heat pack or heating pad for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the heat source if your skin becomes red.

Do not squeeze abscesses as this can cause the infection to spread.

When should I see a doctor?

If you have an abscess, you should seek medical attention if:

  • you develop a fever or chills
  • the area around the abscess gets warm
  • the redness and swelling get worse

If the abscess is in your mouth, use cold compress on the outside of your cheek to control the swelling and see a dentist immediately.

If you need antibiotics, it is very important to follow the treatment plan your doctor prescribes, and to finish the full course of antibiotics. Your pharmacist can also guide you on how to take your medicines.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Can abscesses be prevented?

Here are some tips to help prevent abscesses:

Resources and support

It is important to speak with your doctor if you think you have an abscess.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for advice. A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The Royal Women's Hospital has advice on managing abscesses on your labia or outside the entrance of your vagina.

NSW Health provides a fact sheet on boils and skin infections, as well as how to treat them.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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