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What Is an Abscess?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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An abscess is an inflamed, infected nodule filled with pus. Common on the skin or in the mouth, it can be a quite painful condition. Treatment is dependent on the nodule's location and severity, but if left untreated, a mass can rupture, allowing the infection to spread.

Often initially seen as a raised, hard nodule, an abscess is diagnosed with a visual examination. To confirm the nodule is abscessed, a needle biopsy may be performed to obtain a sample of the inner fluid. Depending on the location and size of the mass, additional testing, including imaging tests, may be conducted to discount other conditions. Ones in the mouth can require laboratory testing and X-rays to determine an appropriate treatment.

Although an infected mass may form anywhere in the body, most occur either just beneath the surface of the skin or within the mouth. Initiated by the introduction of foreign matter, such as a sliver of glass, or a localized infection, the body's inflammatory response can contribute to the problem. The area becomes irritated, raised, and adopts a reddish hue.

Individuals with an abscessed nodule initially notice tenderness in the affected area. As with most inflammatory conditions, the tissue puts off heat so it is not uncommon for the area to feel warm to the touch. If the nodule is in the mouth, a person may experience sensitivity to extreme temperatures and facial swelling. As the infected mass matures and the infection moves toward the skin’s surface, it comes to a head like a pimple. If the infection burrows down into the tissue, additional symptoms, including fever, malaise, and other complications may occur.

Home remedies are usually the first approach to treatment, especially if a person has had an abscess before and recognizes the signs. Applying a warm compress several times a day for several days usually draws the infection to the surface. With time, the nodule will usually come to a head and outwardly rupture.

If the infected nodule grows larger without rupturing or symptoms worsen, medical treatment should be sought. Puncturing an abscess with a needle or squeezing it is never recommended due to the risk for serious complications, including injury to the tissue and increased infection. Usually, lancing by a qualified health care provider is the primary approach for draining and removing the tissue.

Regardless of the location of the abscess, antibiotics are often prescribed to control the infection. Lancing is generally performed in the office of a medical professional with the administration of a local anesthetic. Using a scalpel, the health care provider takes off the topmost layer of the tissue or makes a single incision in the nodule so the pus may drain. Usually, the patient will only feel slight pressure during the procedure. If the tissue is in the mouth and the infection is significant, any affected teeth may need to be removed.

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Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Sep 14, 2012

Abscesses in dogs can be hard to spot until the infection has spread. My dog got bitten by a neighbor's dog, and it took about a week for the abscess to start draining.

His lymph nodes started to swell, and I saw pinkish-purple pus oozing from the wound. It looked as if his flesh had liquefied. I took him to the vet right away.

I felt terrible that I hadn't noticed the severity of the wound earlier, but it had been covered with fur. He had to have the abscess lanced and be on antibiotics for 14 days. Also, I had to keep him inside, because there was a risk of flies laying eggs in his open wound, which had to heal from the inside out.

By feasting — On Sep 13, 2012
@seag47 – I know that cystic acne involves abscesses. This kind of acne goes deeper than your casual pimple, though.

It runs deep, and the dermatologist has to stick a needle into it and squeeze, starting with his thumbs further apart than the actual edges of the abscess and working toward the center. I had to have this kind of treatment when I developed cystic acne in my twenties.

I had abscesses all over my jawline. It was so bad that it required a series of chemical peels, topical ointment, and antibiotics over a period of six months. Miraculously, it cleared up, but I was beginning to wonder if it ever would.

By seag47 — On Sep 12, 2012

Are pimples technically abscesses? I know that they become red and tender and eventually come to a head, so it seems to me that they would be small abscesses.

By Kristee — On Sep 11, 2012

My husband had to seek abscess treatment after being bitten by a poisonous spider. At first, he didn't even know that he had been bitten. He just knew that he had a large red area on his thigh that kept growing.

The doctor had to lance it, and when she started squeezing out the pus, it just kept coming and coming with no end in sight. It made him nauseous.

She stuffed the newly formed hole with gauze and gave him antibiotics. When he went back to her so that she could change the dressing, he nearly passed out as she was pulling the long piece of gauze out of his wound!

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