Infections/Abscesses

What is the difference between a skin infection and a skin abscess?

A skin abscess typically develops from a skin infection.

A boil is a skin infection which begins in your oil gland or hair follicle. At the start, your skin may turn red in the area that is infected. Then, a tender lump develops. Within four days to a week, the lump turns white as pus collects under your skin. The infection is called an abscess should it spread to deeper layers of your skin.

What is a skin abscess?

A skin abscess is a bump on your skin which contains a collection of pus. It usually develops from a skin infection or the introduction of foreign matter under your skin. A typical skin abscess is painful, swollen and warm when you touch it. The skin surrounding your abscess appears pink or red. Skin abscesses may occur in any part of your skin. Common places of skin abscess include your underarms and groins, face, chest, back and buttocks.

It is important to note that though unlike skin cysts which are fluid-filled lumps which are not infected, skin abscesses are infected areas of skin. In fact, it is possible for skin abscesses to develop from skin cysts.

What causes a skin abscess?

A skin abscess can be caused by an inflammatory reaction to an infection by a bacteria or parasite, or to a foreign material within the body, such as a needle of splinter. By triggering an inflammatory response in your body, this leads your immune system to form a cavity or capsule to contain the infection and prevent it from spreading. The contents of the abscess liquefies and pus develops.

Skin abscess may occur after:

  • An infection by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus bacteria which enters your body through a wound or injury that has punctured or broken the skin or through a hair follicle
  • Infected hair follicle which occurs when the hair is trapped and unable to break through your skin
  • A small wound or injury

How do I tell if the lump is a skin abscess?

Common signs and symptoms of a skin abscess include:

  • Pain, tenderness and redness around the infected area which may feel warm to the touch
  • Swelling around the infected area
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fluid or pus drainage from the abscess
  • Fever or chills
  • Skin lesions that are changes in colour and texture of your skin

How is a skin abscess diagnosed?

Your doctor will take down your medical history and perform a physical examination of the affected area. Depending on the location and extent of your abscess, your doctor may send wound cultures of your sore to the laboratory for blood tests or imaging tests. This helps him to identify the cause of your skin abscess.

Why surgery for a skin abscess?

Unlike other infections, a skin abscess does not usually cure using antibiotics alone. A skin abscess, in general, has to open and drain to be properly treated, lest it leads to potentially serious complications. These include spread of infection within the same area, to other parts of the body or even resulting in tissue death. Sometimes, even when a skin abscess opens and drains spontaneously, often it has to be incised (cut open) and drained by your surgeon. This will allow the trapped fluid to flow out. Thereafter, your surgeon will stitch up the wound to help it heal and prevent the abscess from returning. You may also be prescribed oral antibiotics to control the infection.