An abscess is a painful swollen area that contains pus. This is a yellowish or green liquid produced by an infection.
The main symptoms of an abscess are:
- a swelling or lump
- redness of the skin
You might also have leaking pus (a pus discharge), a high temperature (fever) or feel generally unwell.
You can get an abscess in an area where there has been:
- a cyst (a small lump in the skin) for some time
- an infection
Abscesses are more common in people who smoke or have diabetes.
We treat an abscess by draining it and removing all the infected tissue. Some abscesses drain by themselves, but you usually still need a procedure to clean the area.
We can drain most abscesses in the emergency department (A&E) or our emergency general surgical clinic under a local anaesthetic. You stay awake during the procedure, but the local anaesthetic medicine makes the area around the abscess numb and pain-free.
Preparing for the procedure
Please bring all your medicines to hospital with you. We can then see exactly which ones you take. This also prevents delays to your usual amounts (doses) of medicine in hospital.
If you forget to bring your medicines with you, always tell us about any regular medicines that you take. This includes:
- any medicines that you buy from a pharmacy or shop
- herbal or homeopathic medicines
It is also important to tell us if you have any allergies to medicines.
If you take any medicines that thin your blood, tell your doctor or the nurse. Examples are:
- antiplatelet medicines, such as aspirin or clopidogrel
- anticoagulant medicines, such as warfarin or rivaroxaban
You might need to stop taking these medicines temporarily before your procedure.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have diabetes. You might need to change the dose of your diabetes medicines when you fast before the procedure.
We give you more information on stopping any medicines at your pre-assessment appointment. This is an appointment to check that you are well enough to have the procedure and explain how to prepare for it.
Unless we ask you to make any changes, keep taking your medicines in the usual way.
Treating an abscess
We treat the abscess by making a cut in the skin to drain the pus and clean the area. We leave the cut in the skin open and do not stitch it closed. This stops pus filling the area again. We then put a dressing (a piece of material used to cover and protect a wound) on the area.
You can usually have the procedure with a local anaesthetic medicine on the ward or clinic. We clean the area and use local anaesthetic spray or injections to make the skin around the abscess numb before the procedure. This means that you do not feel any pain during the surgery.
If your abscess is in a sensitive area or you have a larger abscess, we might need to drain it under a general anaesthetic in the operating theatre. This is a medicine that makes you sleep during the procedure and stops you feeling anything.
We talk to you about the procedure and ask you to sign a consent form.
Giving your permission (consent)
We want to involve you in decisions about your care and treatment. If you decide to have surgery to treat an abscess, we ask you to sign a consent form. This says that you agree to have the treatment and understand what it involves.
If you need more information before signing the consent form, please speak to a member of staff caring for you.
Other treatment options
Sometimes an abscess is very small or does not contain much pus. In this case, you might have antibiotics to treat the abscess instead of surgery. If the abscess grows, it might need draining later.
You rarely need antibiotics after a procedure to drain an abscess, unless there is a large amount of infection around it.
After the procedure
If you have an abscess drained under local anaesthetic, you will be awake throughout the procedure. You can go home immediately afterwards.
If you have a general anaesthetic, you can usually go home later the same day. You need a family member or friend to travel home and stay with you for at least 24 hours after your surgery.
Looking after your wound
You have a dressing over the wound after your surgery. The nurse at your GP surgery usually needs to change the dressing every day until the wound stops draining and starts to close.
Please phone your GP surgery to make an appointment. If you are not registered with a GP, ask the ward nurses for details of walk-in centres.
You can have a shower or bath, but might need to remove the dressing and then use a new dressing afterwards. Do not leave a wet dressing on the wound.
Get an urgent GP appointment or go to your nearest A&E if:
- you feel generally unwell
- you have a high temperature (fever)
Pain after treatment
You usually feel more comfortable when we have drained the abscess. However, you might have discomfort for a few days or when the dressing is changed.
You can use regular painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen (an anti-inflammatory medicine). Always follow the instructions on the packet.
Returning to work and other activities
When you can return to work depends on how you feel and if you have an active job.
You can do as much as you feel that you can manage while you recover. However, you need to avoid any heavy activity such as lifting, exercise or running during the first few days. Build up to your usual level of activity gradually.
You need to avoid swimming until your wound has healed.
We do not usually need to see you again in the hospital after a procedure to treat an abscess.
If you have any concerns, please phone the emergency surgery team or see your GP or practice nurse.
Risks of abscess treatment
The possible complications that can happen if you have your abscess drained include:
- a scar
- delayed wound healing
- bleeding or bruising around your wounds
There is also a chance that the abscess or cyst might return.
If you have a general anaesthetic, there can also be other risks. They include:
- being sick (vomiting) and a sore throat after your surgery
- blood clots in your lower leg (deep vein thrombosis or DVT), which could pass to your lung
There might be other specific risks depending on where the abscess is on your body. The doctor explains these to you.