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Abscess

An abscess is a collection of pus in any part of the body. In most cases, the area around an abscess is swollen and inflamed.

Causes

Abscesses occur when an area of tissue becomes infected and the body's immune system tries to fight it. White blood cells (WBCs) move through the walls of the blood vessels into the area of the infection and collect in the damaged tissue. During this process, pus forms. Pus is the buildup of fluid, living and dead white blood cells, dead tissue, and bacteria or other foreign substances.

Abscesses can form in almost any part of the body. The skin, under the skin, and the teeth are the most common sites. Abscesses may be caused by bacteria, parasites, and foreign substances.

Abscesses in the skin are easy to see. They are red, raised, and painful. Abscesses in other areas of the body may not be seen, but they may cause organ damage.

Types and locations of abscesses include:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam, focusing on the symptoms of the abscess.

Tests to locate the abscess include:

  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

Often, a sample of fluid will be taken from the abscess and tested to see what type of germ is causing the problem.

Treatment

Treatment varies, but often surgery to drain the abscess, antibiotics, or both are needed.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you think that you have any type of abscess.

Prevention

Preventing abscesses depends on where they develop. For example, good hygiene can help prevent skin abscesses. Dental hygiene and routine care will prevent tooth abscesses.

References

De Prisco G, Celinski S, Spak CW. Abdominal abscesses and gastrointestinal fistulas. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 28.

Holtzman LC, Hitti E, Harrow J. Incision and drainage. In: Roberts JR, ed. Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 37.

Tunkel AR. Brain abscess. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 92.

    • Amebic brain abscess

      Amebic brain abscess - illustration

      Amebiasis, normally an infection of the intestinal tract, may spread and infect other organs such as the liver or brain. Infection of the brain can be fatal. In this slide, ameba are shown in a sample of brain tissue. Ameba represent a serious infection in immunocompromised individuals. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

      Amebic brain abscess

      illustration

    • Pyogenic abscess

      Pyogenic abscess - illustration

      A liver abscess can develop from several different sources, including a blood infection, an abdominal infection, or an abdominal injury which has been become infected. The most common infecting bacteria include E coli, enterococcus, staphylococcus, and streptococcus. Treatment is usually a combination of drainage and prolonged antibiotic therapy.

      Pyogenic abscess

      illustration

    • Tooth abscess

      Tooth abscess - illustration

      A collection of infected material (pus) resulting from bacterial infection of the center (pulp) of a tooth.

      Tooth abscess

      illustration

    • Intra-abdominal abscess, CT scan

      Intra-abdominal abscess, CT scan - illustration

      CT scan of the pelvis showing a large intra-abdominal mass.

      Intra-abdominal abscess, CT scan

      illustration

      • Amebic brain abscess

        Amebic brain abscess - illustration

        Amebiasis, normally an infection of the intestinal tract, may spread and infect other organs such as the liver or brain. Infection of the brain can be fatal. In this slide, ameba are shown in a sample of brain tissue. Ameba represent a serious infection in immunocompromised individuals. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

        Amebic brain abscess

        illustration

      • Pyogenic abscess

        Pyogenic abscess - illustration

        A liver abscess can develop from several different sources, including a blood infection, an abdominal infection, or an abdominal injury which has been become infected. The most common infecting bacteria include E coli, enterococcus, staphylococcus, and streptococcus. Treatment is usually a combination of drainage and prolonged antibiotic therapy.

        Pyogenic abscess

        illustration

      • Tooth abscess

        Tooth abscess - illustration

        A collection of infected material (pus) resulting from bacterial infection of the center (pulp) of a tooth.

        Tooth abscess

        illustration

      • Intra-abdominal abscess, CT scan

        Intra-abdominal abscess, CT scan - illustration

        CT scan of the pelvis showing a large intra-abdominal mass.

        Intra-abdominal abscess, CT scan

        illustration

      Review Date: 7/13/2016

      Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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