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What Is an Abscess?

Your body naturally fights back when germs get inside. Sometimes an abscess forms when your body is trying to do this kind of germ fighting. But then the abscess (say: ab-sess) becomes part of the problem because it’s an area of infected tissue that needs attention.

Abscesses can form on the skin, under the skin, in a tooth, or inside the body. Some people feel sick when they have an abscess. They might get a fever that makes them feel too hot or too cold.

What If I Have a Skin Abscess?

Unlike abscesses inside the body, you can see an abscess on your skin. A skin abscess may look like a red, swollen bump — a large pimple that might be tender if you touch it. An abscess can happen after an injury, like a scrape.

Tell a grownup if you think you have a skin abscess. Make sure you don’t touch or squeeze the abscess because that could make it worse.

abscess illustration

With a grownup’s help, you might want to put a warm washcloth on the area. Sometimes, that can help the abscess open up and drain. What’s in there? A gooey fluid called pus that contains germ-fighting cells.

Use warm — not hot — water to warm up the washcloth or compress. Keep the compress on the area for several minutes. Do this a few times a day.

Since abscesses contain germs, you want to wash your hands before or after touching one — or the pus that comes out of it.

When to Call the Doctor

If the skin abscess opens on its own and drains, and the infection seems to clear up in a couple of days, your skin should heal on its own. If it doesn’t, it’s time for your mom or dad to call your doctor’s office. If you go to the doctor, he or she will probably prescribe a type of medicine called antibiotics. They help your body kill the germs that are causing the abscess.

Sometimes the doctor will want to drain the abscess to let all the pus and germs out. This will allow the abscess to heal. The doctor might put gauze into the wound to soak up the drainage and help the abscess heal. Gauze is a bit like the white pad on a bandage that rests against a cut or scrape.

Make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions about how to take care of the abscess when you go home. And be sure to tell an adult if you don’t feel better or the abscess gets worse. Ask your parents for your own washcloth and towels so you don’t spread germs to other people.

How Can I Avoid Getting a Skin Abscess?

You can help prevent skin infections by being extra careful when you get a cut or scrape. Keep it clean and dry, and cover it with a bandage, if necessary. That helps keep germs out so the cut can heal.

And regular hand washing (before you eat or prepare food and after using the bathroom) is another germ-fighting step to take all the time, whether you have a cut or not.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: June 2012