By Tim Taylor

Infected tissue

Can form anywhere

Download this episodeAbscesses can form wherever the body is fighting off an infection. For example, a skin abscess can appear when germs get into the body through an opening in the skin, like a cut, insect sting, or burn. Some abscesses are caused by an irritant like an injected medication that was not completely absorbed. Since they’re not caused by infection, these kinds of abscesses are called “sterile” abscesses. Sterile abscesses aren’t as common as infected abscesses, but they can occur on occasion. People who are obese, who have diabetes or have a weakened immune system due to an underlying illness or medical treatment are more likely to develop abscesses, although everyone is at risk for one. You might be able to sense fluid in an abscess when you press on the abscess with a finger. A red, tender swelling that arises over a period of one to two weeks is a possible symptom of an abscess. You may also have a fever or a general sense of not feeling well.

Don’t touch it

Download this episodeIf you think you have a skin abscess, avoid touching, pushing, popping, or squeezing it. Doing that can spread the infection or push it deeper inside the body, making things worse. Try using a warm compress to see if that opens up the abscess so it can drain. 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, and wash your hands well before and after applying the washcloth. If the abscess opens on its own and drains, and the infection seems to clear up in a couple of days, your body should heal on its own. If it doesn’t, it’s time to call your doctor. You should also contact your physician if the skin abscess becomes painful or red streaks develop around the infected area. Ibuprofen can help reduce the pain and swelling. If the area involves your face, is spreading rapidly, or is in an area that severely limits your functionality, you should seek emergency care.

In the teeth

Download this episodeA tooth abscess is a pocket of pus that’s caused by a bacterial infection. The abscess can occur at different regions of the tooth for different reasons. A periapical abscess occurs at the tip of the root, whereas a periodontal abscess occurs in the gums next to a tooth root. A periapical tooth abscess usually occurs as a result of an untreated dental cavity, injury or prior dental work. A periapical tooth abscess occurs when bacteria invade the dental pulp, the innermost part of the tooth that contains blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue. Bacteria enter through either a cavity or crack in the tooth and spread down to the root. The bacterial infection can cause swelling and inflammation at the tip of the root. Dentists will treat an abscess by draining it and getting rid of the infection. They may be able to save your tooth with a root canal treatment, but it may need to be pulled. Leaving a tooth abscess untreated can lead to serious, even life-threatening, complications.

Oral antibiotics

Download this episodeIn some cases, treating an abscess may require a medical professional draining the pus by making a small incision in the skin after it has been numbed. This will drain a majority of the bacteria, helping the body fight the small amount that remains. The fluid may then be sent to a laboratory for testing. This will help the doctor determine not only what type of bacterium is causing the infection but also what antibiotics will work best to treat it. The doctor may choose to have you start oral antibiotics aimed at treating the most common bacteria that cause abscesses while awaiting these results. However, if the infection is small and it has been drained, the antibiotics may not be necessary. If the patient’s symptoms don’t improve or it is determined that the bacterium is not one of the common types, a different antibiotic may be prescribed. It is important to take the entire course as prescribed, even if you are feeling better or the infection appears to be gone after just a few days.Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.