10 Reasons Not to Go to the ER

Skin Abscess
Abscesses are unpleasant and can cause discomfort, but most don’t even need a doctor’s attention. © H_Barth/iStockphoto

Cutaneous abscesses — also called skin abscesses — are localized, red, swollen and tender infections below the surface of the skin. An abscess is basically just a small cavity that's filled with pus and contains the infection. If you've ever had a furuncle (also called a boil) or carbuncles (which are multiple furuncles joined together under the skin), you've had a skin abscess.

Abscesses typically form because of clogged sweat glands or inflamed hair follicles, and they're most often infected with Staphylococcus aureus. While an abscess will often drain on its own with warm compresses applied to the area at home, these lesions are some of the most common skin infections doctors treat. Abscesses that are stubborn and won't drain after several days of at-home treatment, those that are large (bigger than one-half inch, or 1.3 centimeters across), or in sensitive areas such as the face or groin should be evaluated by a physician. These infections may need to be lanced (opened, drained and irrigated to clean out the infection) [source: Doerr]. Abscesses that are caused specifically by community-acquired methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) are also typically treated with antibiotics.

If an abscess develops red streaking or is accompanied by a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.8 degrees Celsius) or higher, the infection may be spreading, which means a visit to a general health care provider or an urgent care clinic is in order.