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Common abscess questions

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What is an abscess?

An abscess is a build-up of pus that can form anywhere in the body. It is usually caused by a bacterial infection. Pus is a combination of white blood cells, dead tissue, and bacteria which come together to form a thick liquid. It often has a foul smell.

Abscesses can develop on the skin, inside organs and between organs.

What are the first signs of an abscess?

If you are developing a skin abscess, you may experience:

  • a build-up of white or yellow pus, which you can see
  • pain, tenderness or warmth in the affected area
  • a smooth swelling under the skin, which may be hard or firm
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • chills

An internal abscess can be harder to spot than a skin abscess. The symptoms can be vague and can vary greatly depending on where in the body the abscess is. Signs may include pain in the affected area, a high temperature, and generally feeling unwell.

Where can you get an abscess?

Abscesses can develop in many places, including on the skin, inside organs (internal abscess) and between organs.

What is a tooth abscess?

A tooth abscess or a dental abscess is a build-up of pus that forms inside the teeth, gums, or the bone the teeth are in contact with. Like other abscesses, it is usually caused by a bacterial infection.

A tooth abscess can be painful, but it can also be painless.

If you think you have a tooth abscess you should see your dentist immediately. Tooth abscesses typically don’t go away on their own, and the infection can spread to other parts of your body.

How can you get rid of an abscess?

You will usually need medical help to get rid of an abscess, although small skin abscesses can sometimes break, drain and heal on their own.

The standard treatment for a skin abscess is a procedure in which a small cut is made in the skin and the pus is drained from the affected area.

Abscesses inside the body usually need to have the pus drained, either using a needle inserted through the skin or with surgery. In some cases, a tube may be inserted to drain the pus after surgery. Antibiotics may also be prescribed.

Can an abscess go away without draining?

Small skin abscesses may recover on their own without treatment. Larger skin abscesses, if not drained, may grow quite large and painful before bursting. If this happens, the infection can spread.

An internal abscess is usually serious and can make you ill if left untreated, so it usually needs draining.

Is an abscess dangerous?

If left untreated, an abscess can be dangerous and lead to serious complications, especially an internal abscess. They can make you seriously ill, and there is a risk of the infection spreading to other parts of your body. It is also possible to develop sepsis, which is a life-threatening response to an infection.

Visit your doctor if you think you may have developed an abscess.

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