It's hard to believe, but an ugly-looking abscess is actually the body's way of trying to heal from an infection.
Abscesses form after bacteria, fungi, or other germs enter the body — usually through an open wound like a cut — and cause an infection. When this happens, the body's immune system is activated and sends out white blood cells to fight the infection. It's these white blood cells, along with other debris, that can collect in the wound and make up the pus. When pus collects, it may not be able to drain out, and the area begins to hurt.
Kids are prone to abscesses because they're less likely to clean and care for their cuts and other wounds, thus making them prime candidates for these types of infections. Foreign objects that get inside a wound, like sand or clothing fibers, also can lead to abscesses, as can inflamed hair follicles.
Abscesses are typically red, swollen, and warm to the touch, and might leak fluid. They can develop on top of the skin, under the skin, in a tooth, or even deep inside the body. On top of the skin, an abscess might look like an unhealed wound or a pimple; underneath the skin, it may create a swollen bump. The area can be painful and tender.
In the most severe cases, the infection can cause fever and chills.
Make sure your child avoids touching, pushing, popping, or squeezing the abscess because that can spread the infection or push it deeper inside the body, making things worse. Prevent the spread of infection by not allowing your child to share clothes, towels, washcloths, sheets, or anything else that may have touched the abscess.
To help the abscess open up and drain, try applying a warm compress. You can make a compress by wetting a washcloth with warm (not hot) water and placing it over the abscess for several minutes. Do this a few times a day. Always wash your hands before and after touching the abscess.
If the abscess opens on its own and drains and the infection seems to clear up in a couple of days, your child should be OK. But if it doesn't heal, make an appointment with your doctor.
If your child's abscess doesn't heal with home treatment or you notice any of the following symptoms, call your doctor:
The doctor will examine the abscess to decide if it needs to be drained. This is done by making a small cut in the abscess that allows the pus to seep out. Medicine is given beforehand to numb the area. Then, gauze might be applied to absorb the fluid in the wound and help the area heal. If your child has this procedure, make sure to follow instructions regarding the cleaning and bandaging of the wound.
The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. If so, be sure your child takes all the medicine until it's gone — even if he or she starts feeling better.
Call the doctor if the wound doesn't begin to heal after a few days, or if it comes back.
Some skin infections are caused by MRSA, a kind of bacteria that is difficult to treat and can be life threatening. The good news is that MRSA infections are rare. However, your doctor will keep MRSA in mind while treating a skin abscess, especially if it doesn't heal properly.
Good hygiene is the best way to avoid infection. Keep all cuts and wounds clean, dry, and covered with a bandage to protect from germs.
Teach kids to wash their hands often and properly, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If a sink with soap and water isn't nearby, it's OK to use alcohol-based instant hand sanitizers or wipes.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: June 2012
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