Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, August 2011.
This factsheet is for people who are planning to have a skin abscess drained, or who would like information about it.
An abscess is a localised collection of pus that forms because of an infection. Abscesses can occur in almost any part of the body.
You will meet the GP or surgeon carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.
A skin abscess is a pus-filled area of infection below the skin, for example a boil. It can vary in size from less than one inch to several inches. A skin abscess is painful and tender to touch. The skin may also look red and feel warm.
A skin abscess may burst through the skin or gradually subside without bursting. The infection can spread to the surrounding areas of your skin (cellulitis). You may feel unwell and have a fever.
Skin abscesses are commonly found on areas where there is hair including the face, neck, groin, armpit and bottom. You are more likely to get a skin abscess if you are obese, or have a skin condition or diabetes.
A skin abscess is usually easy to see on your skin. Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she will also ask you about your medical history. It's important that he or she excludes diabetes.
Depending on how severe your abscess is, your GP may recommend a non-surgical treatment for you. Usually you will be given antibiotics to encourage healing. If you feel unwell or have a fever, intravenous antibiotics (injected directly into your bloodstream) may be required, especially if you have other medical conditions such as diabetes. This will usually require admission to hospital.
If your abscess is large, or doesn’t respond quickly to non-surgical treatment, it will need to be drained under local or general anaesthesia.
Your GP will advise you on which treatment is most suitable for you.
Skin abscess drainage is often done either by your GP or in hospital by a surgeon as an outpatient procedure. This means you have the procedure and can go home the same day. Your GP or surgeon will explain how to prepare for your procedure.
Skin abscess drainage is usually done under local anaesthesia but this will depend on its size and severity.
At the GP surgery or hospital your nurse may check your heart rate and blood pressure, and test your urine.
Your GP or surgeon will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen, and you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead, which you may be asked to do by signing a consent form.
Skin abscess drainage usually takes between five and 15 minutes. It may take slightly longer if you need to have a general anaesthetic.
Your GP or surgeon will make a small cut in your abscess. This will allow all of the pus to drain out. He or she will make sure that the pus drains properly to prevent the abscess coming back, or the infection spreading. Your GP or surgeon will take a sample of the pus to find out what bacteria caused the abscess. This can help with treatment after the skin abscess is drained, such as when choosing the right antibiotic. Once the pus has been drained, your GP or surgeon will clean out the abscess with saline solution. This is a sterile salt solution that will help to ensure all the pus is removed. He or she may then pack the abscess with a dressing. This will allow further drainage of pus and is usually removed one to two days after the procedure.
Your wound will be covered with a sterile dressing.
After a local anaesthetic it may take several hours before the feeling comes back into the treated area. Take special care not to bump or knock the area. Your nurse will give you some advice about caring for your healing wounds before you go home. You will usually be able to go home when you feel ready. You may be given a date for a follow-up appointment. This is usually with your GP but if the procedure was carried out in hospital and your abscess was large, your surgeon may want to review you. You may notice some pus and fluid escaping from the wound and soiling the dressing.
If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Your GP may prescribe antibiotics after your skin abscess drainage. You will also need to take antibiotics if the infection has spread, or if you have a weakened immune system or a fever.
Once the pus is drained, the abscess should heal within two weeks, depending on its size. You can often return to work if you have no problems with the dressing and depending on what type of job you do. This will also depend on the site of the abscess.
As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with having a skin abscess drained. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your GP or surgeon to explain how these risks apply to you.
Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure.
You’re unlikely to get any side-effects after a skin abscess drainage but you may find there is some pain in the area that was drained.
Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure.
Possible complications of skin abscess drainage include scarring from the abscess, which may vary depending on your skin type and the type of cut used.
If you notice redness and swelling or you have a fever, contact your GP. Your abscess may need to be drained again or you may need different antibiotics (eg for resistant bacteria).
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see Common questions.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Publication date: August 2011
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