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Woman with dental abscess

Woman with dental abscess
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Abscesses can develop just about anywhere in the body and can be painful. Often treatment is needed to heal an abscess and to stop infection spreading, so see your doctor if you think you might have an abscess.

What is an abscess?

An abscess is a painful collection of pus that builds up under the skin, in an organ or between your organs. If it is under the skin, it can also be called a boil.

Causes of abscesses

Abscesses usually develop when you have a bacterial infection that your immune system tries to contain. In the process of fighting the infection, pus (a mixture of bacteria and dead cells) is produced.

Other causes include non-bacterial infections, ingrown hairs, or a blocked gland or duct.

Types of abscesses

There are many different types of abscesses, including:

  • skin abscesses or boils - often affecting 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 anorectal abscesses - in or around the anus
  • breast abscesses - can develop if mastitis 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.

Symptoms of abscesses

The symptoms of an abscess depend on where it develops.

If you have an abscess under the skin or in the mouth, symptoms may include swelling and redness in the area. As pus builds up, it may cause pain. You may also have swollen glands (lymph nodes) and a fever.

If you have an internal abscess, you may have pain in the affected area, fever, and generally feel unwell. Imaging tests such as ultrasound may be needed to find the problem.

Treatment and prevention of abscesses

Small abscesses can sometimes burst and heal on their own. However, larger or internal abscesses need to be drained by a doctor (sometimes involving surgery). You may also need to take antibiotics.

Once an abscess has drained, it usually heals quickly and doesn’t cause long-term consequences.

To help prevent abscesses:

  • keep your skin clean and healthy 
  • avoid scratches or nicks to your skin
  • eat healthily to build your immune system and keep a healthy weight.
  • avoid smoking.

Last reviewed: May 2016

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