An abscess is a painful collection of pus, usually caused by a bacterial infection. Abscesses can develop anywhere in the body.

This article focuses on two types of abscess:

  • skin abscesses which develop under the skin
  • internal abscesses which develop inside the body, in an organ or in the spaces between organs

This topic covers:


When to see your GP




Other types of abscess

Symptoms of an abscess

A skin abscessoften appears as aswollen, pus-filled lump under the surface of the skin. You may also have other symptoms of an infection, such as a high temperature (fever) and chills.

It's more difficult to identify an abscess inside the body, but signs include:

  • pain in the affected area
  • ahigh temperature
  • generally feeling unwell

They can examine a skin abscess or refer you to hospital if you may have an internal abscess.

There are several tests available to help diagnose an abscess, depending on where it's located.

Read about diagnosing an abscess .

Causes of abscesses

Most abscesses are caused by a bacterial infection.

When bacteria enter your body, your immune system sends infection-fighting white blood cells to the affected area.

As the white blood cells attack the bacteria, some nearby tissue dies, creating a holewhich thenfills with pus to form an abscess.The pus contains a mixture of dead tissue, white blood cells and bacteria.

Internal abscesses often develop as a complication of an existing condition, such as an infection elsewhere in your body. For example, if your appendix bursts as a result of appendicitis , bacteriacan spread inside your tummy (abdomen) and cause an abscess to form.

Read about the causes of abscesses .

Treating an abscess

A small skin abscess may drain naturally, or simply shrink, dry upanddisappear without any treatment.

However, larger abscessesmayneedto be treated with antibiotics to clear the infection, and the pus may need to be drained. This will usually be done either by inserting a needle through your skin or by making a small incision in the skin over the abscess.

If you use tissues to wipe any pus away from your abscess, dispose of them straight away to avoid germs spreading. Wash your hands after you've disposed of the tissues.

Take care when shaving your face, legs, underarm areas or bikini area to avoid nicking your skin. Clean any wounds immediately and visit your GP or local NHS walk-in centre if you think there may be something trapped in your skin. Don't share razors or toothbrushes.


Itmay also help to reduce your risk ofskin abscesses by:

  • maintaining a healthy, balanceddiet
  • losing weight if you're overweight or obese
  • stopping smoking

It's difficult to prevent internal abscesses, as they're often complications of other conditions.

Other types of abscess

There are many other types of abscess not fullycovered here, including:

  • an anorectal abscess a build-up of pus in the rectum and anus
  • a Bartholin's abscess a build-up of pus inside one of the Bartholin's glands, which are found on each side of the opening of the vagina
  • a brain abscess a rare but potentially life-threatening build-up of pus inside the skull
  • a dental abscess a build-up of pus under a tooth orin the supporting gum and bone
  • a quinsy (peritonsillar abscess) a build-up of pus between one of your tonsils and the wall of your throat
  • a pilonidal abscess a build-up of pus in the skin of the cleft of the buttocks (where the buttocks separate)
  • a spinal cord abscess a build-up of pus around the spinal cord
Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 28 Jul 2016