An abscess is a painful collection of pus that is caused by a bacterial infection.
Types of abscess
There are a number of different types of abscess including:
spinal cord abscesses
This article focuses on skin abscesses and internal abscesses, which develop inside the body. The other types of abscess are described briefly in the box, below left.
How common are abscesses?
Anyone can develop an abscess, and they can occur almost anywhere in the body.
In most cases, skin abscesses affect people who are otherwise well. They are caused by an infection in the root of a hair or by a blocked sweat gland. Skin abscesses are more common in people with diabetes.
During 2008 and 2009, there were 34,390 reported cases of hospital visits in England due to skin abscesses.
Internal abscesses often develop as a complication of an existing condition, such as an abscess in the tonsils after having acute (severe) tonsillitis. This rare condition is known as quinsy.
People who have an underlying health condition or damage to their immune system are more likely to be affected by internal abscesses.
A small skin abscess may drain naturally and disappear without any treatment.
Larger abscesses can be treated with antibiotics to clear the infection and surgery to drain away the pus. Without treatment, an abscess may continue to get larger and more painful until it eventually bursts.
Discription of abscess types
A dental abscess is a build-up of pus inside a tooth that is caused by a bacterial infection. Bacteria can infect the tooth as a result of tooth decay.
Dental abscesses can also occur within the bone that supports the tooth structure (alveolar bone) and within the gums. See the Health A-Z topic about Dental abscess for more information.
Brain abscesses are rare but they can be life threatening. The build-up of pus is caused by bacteria, which can occur following trauma to the skull, after surgery or from a previous infection.
Bartholin’s abscess is a build-up of pus from one of the Bartholin’s glands, which are found on each side of the opening of the vagina. If the gland gets blocked, an abscess can form.
See the Health A-Z topic about Bartholin’s cyst for more information.
A liver abscess can be caused by an abdominal infection, such as appendicitis, a blood infection or an infection of the passages that transport bile around the body (the biliary tracts).
Skin abscesses can develop anywhere on the body. They occur when a bacterial infection causes pus to collect in the skin.
Skin abscesses can develop under the surface of the skin (subcutaneous) or on the skin (cutaneous).
Spinal cord abscess
A spinal cord abscess is caused by an infection inside the spine that results in inflammation (swelling) and a build-up of pus around the spinal cord.
An anorectal abscess is a collection of pus that builds up in the rectum and anus. The rectum is the area of the large intestine where stools (faeces) are stored and the anus is the opening through which they are passed.
Anorectal abscesses can be caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI), a blocked gland or an infection of an anal fissure (a tear or ulcer in the lining of the anal canal).
Peritonsillar abscesses are the most common infections of the head and neck region and usually develop as a result of tonsillitis (an infection of the tonsils).