Abscesses: Causes, Symptoms, and ER Treatment Options
An abscess is a buildup of a pus that can affect any part of your body. There are many different types of abscesses. They can occur on your skin, in your mouth or around your organs. Skin abscesses may look red and swollen. Bacterial infections usually cause abscesses. Treatment often includes surgical drainage.
What are Abscesses?
An abscess forms when pus accumulates in a specific area of the body. This is usually the result of a bacterial infection. Also known as Boils or Cysts, Abscesses can develop in many areas of the body but are often found on the skin or in the mouth.
Abscesses can cause pain, swelling and inflamed or red skin. Although most abscesses do not result in complications, if they are left untreated they could result in an emergency situation. Visit the closest emergency room if you have pain that you cannot control at home.
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Common Causes of Abscesses
Several conditions can lead to the formation of abscesses but they are usually caused by an inflammatory reaction to a bacteria or parasite, or to the presence of foreign substance in the body such as a splinter or a needle. Below are some of the most common causes of abscesses.
1. Bacterial Infections
- Acute Tissue Infections – Various kinds of bacteria can cause abscesses. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one of the most common of these bacteria types.
- Poor Dental Hygiene – Lack of brushing and flossing or frequent consumption of sugary foods and beverages can lead to the development of bacteria around the teeth and gums. This can create an environment that increases the risk of abscesses.
2. Pre-existing Conditions
- Skin Conditions – Conditions like cellulitis, necrotizing fasciitis or the presence of a sebaceous cyst can sometimes contribute to abscess formation. This is more likely if these skin conditions are left untreated for an extended period of time.
- Complicating Conditions – Conditions like inflammatory bowel syndrome or diabetes can sometimes lead to internal injuries that then become infected. These injuries sometimes develop into abscesses.
- Immune System Disorders– People with compromised immune systems, such as those affected by HIV, cancer or diabetes may be at a higher risk for developing abscesses.
Other Conditions that Cause Abscesses
- Intravenous Drug Use – Injecting drugs with a needle can lead to skin irritation and the introduction of bacteria and/or foreign objects into the skin, resulting in abscess formation.
- Surgery – In some cases, surgical incisions can lead to abscesses. This is uncommon but happens occasionally.
- Parasites – Rarely, microscopic parasites can invade the body. Their presence can introduce bacteria into the skin which may lead to abscess formation. This is most common in areas of the world where these microscopic organisms are prevalent.
What are the different types of abscess?
Abscesses can form throughout the body, both in locations that are visible and internally, where they may go unnoticed and cause serious complications, including organ damage.
The most common types of abscess are:
- Skin abscess, caused by infections that result in pus collecting in the skin. These can include infections from bacteria (most commonly Staphylococcus), infections in the hair follicle (folliculitis), boils, or minor wounds or injuries that become infected. Skin abscesses can form anywhere on the body.
- Dental abscess, which can form in the center of a tooth (the pulp) and spread to the root or bone structures that hold the tooth. A tooth can become infected when bacteria get in through an opening, such as a cavity caused by tooth decay or an injury that results in a broken, chipped or cracked tooth.
- Abdominal abscess, which can be near or inside abdominal organs such as the liver, pancreas or kidneys. Causes of abdominal abscess include infections, burst organs (such as appendix or ovary), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Amebic liver abscess, a type caused by amebiasis, an intestinal infection that can spread to the liver. The infection results from the intestinal parasite Entamoeba histolytica, which is spread through food and water contaminated with feces containing the parasite. Amebiasis is most common in crowded populations with poor sanitation.
- Anorectal abscess, located in or near the anus or rectum, most commonly caused by sexually transmitted diseases, infection of anal fissures, blocked glands, or trauma to the area.
- Bartholin abscess (or cyst), which can form in the Bartholin glands located on each side of the opening of the vagina. The duct from the gland can become blocked, causing fluid to build up over time, potentially leading to an infection and formation of an abscess.
- Brain abscess, typically the result of a bacterial or fungal infection in part of the brain. The pressure created by the abscess can cause serious brain issues, including seizures, loss of muscle function, and language problems. A brain abscess is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
- Epidural abscess, a rare occurrence caused by an infection of the area between the meninges (the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord) and the bones of the skull or spine. If inside the skull, it is an intracranial epidural abscess. If in the spine, it is a spinal epidural abscess, which is the most common type of epidural abscess.
- Peritonsillar abscess, a potentially life-threatening complication of tonsillitis, an infection of the tonsils. Most often, this infection is caused by the bacteria group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus, the same bacteria that cause strep throat. However, peritonsillar abscess is rare due to the use of antibiotics to quickly and effectively treat tonsillitis.
- Pyogenic liver abscess, which is simply an area on the liver that produces pus. This can result from many types of abdominal infection, an infection of the tubes that drain bile, or trauma to the liver.
- Spinal cord abscess, a very rare result of an infection inside the spine. When it does occur, it is most often a complication of an epidural abscess.
Ways to Treat an Abscess Without Going to the Doctor
- If the abscess is small (less than 1 cm or less than a half-inch across), applying warm compresses to the area for about 30 minutes 4 times daily may help.
- Do not attempt to drain the abscess by squeezing or pressing on it. This can push the infected material into the deeper tissues.
- Do not stick a needle or other sharp instrument into the abscess center, because you may injure an underlying blood vessel or cause the infection to spread.
When to Treat Abscesses or Visit the closest ER
Although they are not usually life threatening, you should seek medical help if you notice an abscess on your body. If you discover a lump or unusual spot on your skin or in your mouth that is sore, red or inflamed and warm to the touch, you should see an emergency room doctor to examine the affected area. Do not attempt to treat the abscess at home, as this could spread the infection. Most infections can be treated easily but immediate medical help may be required if the infection worsens and causes severe symptoms.
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Call an Emergency Room Immediately If You Have Any of the Following Symptoms.
- High or prolonged fever
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, weakness or trouble walking
- Persistent bleeding from the affected area
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Severe pain that does not respond to over-the-counter pain medications
- Black or dead skin around the abscess
- Loss of use of limb or another body part
If you need abscess treatment, please visit one of our ER locations. Our board-certified emergency room doctors and licensed nurses are here to help 24/7. ER of Texas Emergency Center has an emergency room near you. Our ER is open 24/7. We function exactly like a hospital emergency room, without the long wait times.
If you are suffering from a painful abscess, visit a ER of Texas Emergency Center ER immediately. Our emergency room staff is trained to treat the various symptoms of abscesses in our comfortable, state-of-the-art facilities. Don’t wait, visit us now!