Abscess treatment

An abscess is a painful swollen area containing pus, a yellowish or green liquid produced by an infection.

The main symptoms are:

  • pain
  • a swelling or lump
  • redness of the skin
  • sometimes a pus discharge

You might also have a high temperature (fever) or feel generally ill.

An abscess can develop where there has been a cyst (a small lump in the skin) for some time, or in an area where there has been an infection.

Abscesses are more common for people who smoke or have diabetes.

We treat an abscess by draining it and removing all the infected tissue. Some drain by themselves, but most will still need a procedure to clean the area.

Most abscesses can be drained in the emergency department (A&E) or our emergency general surgical clinic under a local anaesthetic.

Read more about skin abscesses and internal abscesses on the NHS website.

Preparing for the procedure

Please bring all your medicines to hospital with you so we can see exactly which ones you take. It also stops delays to your medicine doses in hospital.

If you forget, always tell us about any regular medicines you take. This includes any you buy from a pharmacy or shop, and herbal or homeopathic medicines. Tell us if you have any allergies to medicines.

If you take any medicines that thin your blood, such as antiplatelet medicines (for example, aspirin or clopidogrel) or anticoagulant medicines (for example, warfarin or rivaroxaban), tell your doctor or the nurse. These medicines might need to be stopped temporarily before your procedure.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have diabetes, as you might need to change the dose of your diabetes medicines when you fast before the procedure.

More information on stopping any medicines will be given to you at your pre-assessment appointment.

Unless you are asked to make changes, keep taking your medicines as prescribed.

Treating an abscess

We treat the abscess by making a cut in the skin to drain the pus and clean the area.

The cut in the skin is left open and not stitched closed, to stop pus refilling the area. We then put a dressing on the area.

You can have this with a local anaesthetic on the ward or clinic. We clean the area and use local anaesthetic spray or injections to numb the skin around the abscess before the surgery, so you will not feel any pain.

If it's in a sensitive area or a larger abscess, it might need to be drained under a general anaesthetic in the operating theatre.

We will talk to you about the surgery and ask you to sign a consent form.

We want to involve you in decisions about your care and treatment. If you decide to go ahead with your treatment, you will be asked to sign a consent form. This states 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 and antibiotics might be used instead of surgery. Occasionally an abscess grows and needs draining later on.

Antibiotics are rarely needed after draining, unless there is a large amount of infection around the abscess.

After the procedure

If you have drainage under local anaesthetic you will be awake throughout the procedure and can go home immediately after.

If you have had a general anaesthetic, you can usually go home later the same day. You will need a friend or family member to travel home and stay with you for at least 24 hours after your surgery.

Looking after your wound

You will have a dressing over the wound after your surgery. This usually needs to be changed every day by the nurse at your GP practice until the would stops draining and starts to close.

Please phone your GP practice to arrange an appointment. If you are not registered with a GP ask the ward nurses for details of walk-in centres. 

You can shower or have a bath, but you might need to remove the dressing before, 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

People usually feel more comfortable once the abscess has been drained, but you might have discomfort for a few days or when the dressing is changed.

You can use regular painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. Follow the instructions on the packet.

Returning to work and other activities

This depends on how you feel and how active your job is. Do as much as you feel able to, but avoid any strenuous activity such as lifting, exercise or running during the first few days. Build up to your normal level of activity gradually.

Avoid swimming until the wound has healed.

Follow-up appointment

We usually do not need to see you again in the hospital after this treatment.

If you have any concerns, please phone the emergency surgery team or see your GP or practice nurse.

Risks of abscess treatment

Problems that can occur from having your abscess drained include:

  • a scar
  • delayed wound healing
  • bleeding or bruising around your wounds
  • the abscess or cyst might return

If you have a general anaesthetic, there can also be specific risks. These include:

  • being sick (vomiting) and a sore throat after your surgery
  • blood clots in your lower leg (deep vein thrombosis, DVT), which could pass to your lung

There might be other specific risks depending on where the abscess is. The doctor will discuss these with you.

Resource number: 4401/VER2
Last reviewed: September 2020
Next review due: September 2023

Logo PIF

Contact us

If you have concerns about your wound, phone the emergency surgery team. 

Phone: 020 7188 7188 extension 53075 or see your GP or practice nurse.

pals icon

Do you have any comments or concerns about your care?

Contact our Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)

Is this health information page useful?