What Is the Main Cause of Abscess?

Medically Reviewed on 1/4/2022
What Is the Main Cause of Abscess?
Abscesses are most commonly caused by an inflammatory reaction to bacteria or parasites or by the presence of foreign substances in the body.

Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus are the most common cause of abscesses, and they are almost always the cause of abscesses under the skin.

Abscesses can form due to various conditions, but they are most commonly caused by an inflammatory reaction to bacteria or parasites or by the presence of a foreign substance in the body, such as a splinter or needle.

Some of the most common causes of abscesses are listed below:

  • Preexisting conditions:
  • Unsterile environment: Constant picking and touching a wound or an ulcer may make it more prone to abscess development.
  • Intravenous drug use: Injecting drugs with a needle can cause skin irritation and the introduction of bacteria and/or foreign objects into the skin, resulting in the formation of an abscess.
  • Surgery: Surgical incisions can cause abscesses in some cases when sterilization of instruments is not properly done. This is unusual, but the cause cannot be ruled out.
  • Parasites: Microscopic parasites such as amoeba or ticks can infiltrate the body on rare occasions. Their presence can introduce bacteria into the skin, resulting in the formation of an abscess.

However, the actual cause of an abscess is largely determined by the location of its origin.

  • Abscesses near the large bowel, particularly around the anus, can be caused by any of the numerous bacteria present in and around the area.
  • Any organism capable of traveling through circulation can cause brain and liver abscesses. Bacteria, amoebas, and some fungi can travel in this manner.
  • Constant touching and picking of the site of injury can cause an abscess.

What is an abscess?

An abscess is the final stage of a tissue infection, which begins with inflammation or swelling. Abscesses, also known as soft tissue infections, are pockets of bacteria and pus beneath the skin and, in rare cases, in the muscle.

During an infection, our body's immune system forms a wall around the bacteria to prevent them from infecting the entire body and eventually forming an abscess.

Abscesses are classified into two types:

  1. Septic abscesses:
    • In response to the invading germ, the white blood cells congregate at the infected site and begin producing chemicals known as enzymes that attack the germ by digesting it.
    • These enzymes kill germs by breaking them down into small pieces that can be picked up by the circulation and eliminated from the body, much like acid.
    • Unfortunately, these chemicals digest body tissues as well. In most cases, the germ produces chemicals that are similar to those of the immune system.
    • Pus is a thick, yellow liquid that contains digested germs, digested tissue, white blood cells, and enzymes.
  2. Sterile abscesses:
    • They are sometimes a milder form of the same process caused by nonliving irritants such as drugs rather than germs.
    • If an injected drug, such as penicillin, is not absorbed, it remains at the site of injection and may cause enough irritation to cause a sterile abscess.
    • It is referred to as sterile because there is no infection present.
    • Sterile abscesses, rather than remaining pus pockets, are more likely to scar into hard, solid lumps.

Key symptoms of an abscess

  • Buildup of pus
  • Inflammation
  • Redness and soreness
  • Pain
  • Difficult movements
  • Difficulty eating
  • Elevated white blood cell count
  • Presence of a sac or bump on the skin that is filled with pus
  • Increased body temperature (which is a sign that the white blood cells are fighting off infection)
  • Symptoms of sinusitis (especially when a tooth abscess has already affected the sinus cavity)
  • Yellowish, yellow-white, or white fluid oozing
  • Neurological issues such as disorientation (when an abscess is present in the brain)
  • Digestive problems (if the abscess is in any part of the digestive tract including the colon and rectum)

To be diagnosed with sepsis due to the presence of an abscess, a person must have:

  • an increased heart rate of more than 90 beats per minute even when resting, 
  • increased breathing of more than 20 breaths per minute,
  • a high count of white blood cells, and
  • a body temperature of more than 100.4°F (38°C).


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What are the treatment options for an abscess?

Although normal abscesses are usually not life-threatening, you should seek medical attention if you notice one on your body.

If you notice a lump or an unusual spot on your skin or in your mouth that is sore, red, or inflamed and warm to the touch, you should consult an emergency room doctor.

Do not try to treat the abscess at home because this may spread the infection. Most infections are easily treated, but if the infection worsens and causes severe symptoms, immediate medical attention may be required. Never pop an abscess at home.

Treatment options for an abscess include:

  • Antibiotics:
    • The main purpose of antibiotics is to help control and eventually eliminate the presence of bacteria that could be causing the infection and thus the abscess.
    • However, antibiotics can kill good bacteria that can help boost immunity. As a result, it is critical to follow the doctor's instructions on how to take them.
  • Pain relievers:
    • They are intended to alleviate swelling, redness, tenderness, and pain caused by an abscess. Because they can have side effects, it's best to use them only when necessary.
  • Drainage:
    • The process of making a small incision on the abscess to allow the pus or fluid to drain, which can significantly reduce pain, is referred to as drainage. 
    • To reduce the risk of infection, the area is cleaned before and after with a sterile solution.
  • Surgery:
    • This is preferable when traditional drainage is not possible or when the abscess is invasive. It entails making a larger incision on the affected area to allow the pus to drain.

Once the abscess has been properly drained, the outcome for the condition is excellent.

The cause of the abscess (along with any other diseases the person has) will determine the overall outcome.

  • If the abscess ruptures into neighboring areas or allows the infectious agent to enter the bloodstream, serious or fatal consequences are likely.
  • Abscesses in and around the nasal sinuses, face, ears, and scalp have the potential to spread to the brain.
  • Abscesses within an abdominal organ, such as the liver, have the potential to rupture into the abdominal cavity, which may have a fatal outcome.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/4/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

Abscess: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/abscess

Abscesses: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/abscesses

Abscess: https://www.medanta.org/internal-medicine-hospital/disease/abscess/

Skin or Soft Tissue Abscess: https://www.healthyhorns.utexas.edu/HT/HT_abscess.html

Where to Get Your Abscess Seen: https://hiv.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Absesses-411.pdf