Skin Abscess (Boils): Symptoms, Risks & Treatment

We all suffer from skin abscess/boils every once in a while. It is caused due to various reasons. The symptoms, treatment, when boils are severe, when to go to a doctor & who are at a higher risk of getting this is explained below.


Skin abscess is also known as boil and it is a bump which develops inside or below the skin surface. This bump is filled with pus which is translucent. It is caused by a bacterial infection. This might develop anywhere on the body. Abscesses arises on the back, face, chest, or buttocks. Skin abscesses can also appear in areas of hair growth like the underarms or groin. For most of the boils treatment is not needed as they disappear after some time. Over-the-counter medications help to speed up the healing. While some boils go away on their own some others may need laceration / drainage. If left untreated this can lead to severe life-threatening complications.

Causes of Boils:

Skin abscess is caused because of a variety of reasons but as mentioned above the most common reason is bacterial infection. The bacteria enters the skin through a hair follicle, puncture wound, cut to the skin or abscesses may form around a foreign object(splinter/ piece of glass stuck in the skin.)
Bacteria that cause abscess infections are as follows:

  1. Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) which is additionally called as staphmethicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), strains of staph that are immune to certain antibiotics
  2. Streptococcus pyogenes
  3. Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Less common causes of skin abscesses are given below:

  1. anaerobic organisms
  2. fungal infections
  3. Viruses
  4. parasites

People having higher risk of developing boils are as follows:

  1. those who’re obese
  2. those who smoke
  3. people with diabetes
  4. Ones with compromised immune systems
  5. those who use drugs intravenously

How to identify a skin abscess?

Abscesses mostly develop as a bump on the skin rather like a pimple. Over time it can grow looking sort of like a cyst filled with fluid. Based on the reason behind the abscess there might be other symptoms they are:

  1. Fever
  2. Nausea
  3. Chills
  4. Swelling
  5. lesions on the skin
  6. inflamed skin
  7. fluid drainage from the abscess
  8. The area around the abscess may also feel painful and warm to the touch.

General Symptoms of abscesses:

Bump on the skin may be an abscess if it:

  1. is firm yet squishy
  2. is round
  3. contains pus
  4. is painful, swollen and red
  5. is hot to the touch( probably infected)
  6. a punctum is present(a pinpoint opening at the center)
If infected by skin abscess they may also have a fever and swollen lymph nodes. Abscesses are painless and shows no symptoms if it’s not infected by bacteria.

Diagnosis of boils:

A single boil is not worth concerning as it is treatable at home itself but if you have a boil & any of the following apply to you, see your doctor immediately :

  1. You’re a child.
  2. You’re over 65 years of age.
  3. You have a weakened immune system/ you was recently hospitalized.
  4. You have received an organ transplant.
  5. You’re currently or recently received chemotherapy.
  6. Your skin abscess is on your face or spine. If left untreated, the abscess may spread to your brain or spinal cord.
  7. Abscess is large, has not healed within two weeks, and have a fever.
  8. The abscess is spreading to other parts of your body.
  9. The abscess is becoming more painful/throbbing.
  10. Your limbs are swollen.
  11. Your skin around the abscess is swollen/extremely red.

Your physician will evaluate your medical history and perform a physical examination to inspect the abscess. A complete physical examination allows them to tell if an injury or ingrown hair is the cause of the abscess. A culture or a small amount of fluid from the abscess is taken to test for the presence of bacteria.No other testing methods are required to diagnose an abscess. If skin abscesses keep on reoccurring and to determine if it is caused due to a underlying medical condition blood or urine sample will be needed.

Treatment of skin abscess :

A infected/ painful abscess is treated by a healthcare professional by draining the fluid or by making an incision. For this procedure they administer local anesthetic to numb the skin. They are going to cleanse the cavity with a saline solution.
They leave abscesses open so as to allow remaining pus to drain out. If an abscess is extremely deep the healthcare professional packs the wound and insert a wick to aid with drainage. Based on the type of infection the doctors prescribe antibiotics. The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends to keep away from antibiotics in most cases.
At-home care after medical drainage involves slowly removing packed gauze from inside the wound. Sometimes people will need to have a healthcare professional pack the wound multiple times during the healing process. People should use moist, warm compresses to help wound drainage and prevent the abscess formation.
Boils can be treated at home using:

  1. a heat pack to increase blood flow and help fight infection
  2. over-the-counter (OTC) medications (antibiotic ointments), to soothe the skin, speed healing, and prevent infection
  3. other OTC medications (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), to help with pain and swelling

People should never drain an abscess at home. If a person does this, they risk introducing bacteria into the wound and cause complications.

How can you prevent skin abscess’?

It is impossible to prevent a skin abscess. Despite that there are ways to limit your chance of acquiring this bacterial infection. So, to minimize your risk of a staph infection:

  1. Wash your hands regularly.
  2. Clean all cuts and scrapes, even small ones, with soap and water and apply an OTC antibacterial ointment.
  3. Keep your cuts and wounds bandaged.
  4. Do not to share personal items, like towels, sheets, razors, athletic equipment, makeup, and clothing. If you do have a cut or sore, wash your bedding and towels in hot water, detergent, and bleach regularly and dry them on the hot setting.

When to contact a doctor?

Most of the time a skin abscess is nothing serious but sometimes medical attention is a must.
People should seek immediate medical attention if they:

  1. have signs of a serious infection( fever )
  2. experience recurring abscesses
  3. are immunocompromised
  4. have a chronic condition or illness, such as diabetes


Skin abscesses are mostly common so there is nothing to worry about unless in a few cases as mentioned above. It is possible to treat a small abscess/boil at home by applying heat to shrink and drain it. If an abscess is large or infected, a doctor will cut it open to drain the fluid buildup.
If a person suspects they have an infected abscess, they should seek immediate medical attention. Untreated infected abscesses are life threatening, especially if the infection is the result of staphmethicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA)
Be careful even with small wounds ensuring they are disinfected and bandaged. Do not take boils lightly especially if the symptoms given are exhibited. Seek immediate medical attention.

Subin Joshua
Author: Hi there, my name is Subin Joshua, and I am a Medical student. I grew up in a family of teachers and know that being a social worker is my calling. My passion for helping others has been evident in my involvement in helping the poor and needy for the last three years. Through those experiences, I have learned to interact with a diverse group of people, which has increased my ability to relate to others.