Bacteria usually cause abscesses, but other microorganisms, such as parasites and fungi, can also be to blame.
If a harmful invader sets up camp somewhere on your body, the immune system mounts a defense by sending white blood cells, the body's main infection-fighting cells, into the area. The white blood cells surround intruders, keeping them from damaging nearby tissues or organs. As the white blood cells build their protective walls, pus (a collection of fluid, white blood cells, dead tissue, and the enemy organisms) forms. This mass of debris is the abscess.
How you develop an abscess depends on its location. Skin abscesses can form from cuts, punctures, or other skin problems that allow germs to breach the skin. Tooth abscesses typically form when gum disease or a cavity goes untreated. Other abscesses form anywhere enemy invaders collect and white blood cells move to attack.
Skin abscesses are one of the most common types of abscesses. The area around a skin abscess will be hot to the touch, tender, swollen, and red. Tooth abscesses are also fairly common. With one of these, you'll experience pain, swelling of the gums and jaw, and, probably, fever. Other sites of abscesses include the lungs, liver, brain, spinal cord, rectum, and vaginal area (Bartholin's abscess).
Skin abscesses are primarily treated with drainage (lancing); antibiotics play a secondary role (when appropriate). Deeper abscesses are treated with antibiotics, but surgical drainage may also be necessary. Severe complications arise when germs from the abscess spread to surrounding tissue.
Who's at Risk for an Abscess?
Anyone is at risk for an abscess.
Defensive Measures Against Abscesses
Averting an abscess really depends on where the abscess is located, but in general, healthy living and good hygiene are paramount. To avoid skin abscesses, be sure to properly clean wounds and boils and use an antibacterial or antimicrobial ointment when treating any skin abrasions. To prevent tooth abscesses, brush and floss every day, get regular dental checkups, and avoid cavity-causers, such as sugar-filled foods and drinks.
Cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection, starts in the outer layers of skin but can work its way to underlying tissue and the bloodstream. Go to the next page to learn about treating and preventing cellulitis.
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