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What are Cysts and Abscesses?

Updated on November 12, 2009

An abscess is a collection of pus in a tissue-lined cavity. Abscesses occur due to the destruction of normal tissue by bacterial infection. In rare cases, a fungal infection may also cause an abscess. When bacteria infect an area, they destroy the normal cells. The wastes produced can usually be removed through the blood circulation in the area, but if the destruction is too great, the waste products accumulate as pus, and an abscess forms. There are two main types of abscesses - those that occur in or under the skin, and those that occur in internal body organs.

Sebaceous Cyst

Sebum is the oil-like substance that keeps our skin moist and supple. It is produced in glands beneath the skin, and is discharged through small ducts. These glands are present all over the body, but in areas that may become sweaty, dirty or injured it is possible to block the duct leading from the gland. The sebum continues to be produced, and a cyst (known as a sebaceous cyst) slowly fills up under the skin. The cysts appear frequently on the back, chest and neck, are slightly soft and often have a tiny dimple at the point where the original duct opened onto the skin. Sometimes the pressure in the cyst is sufficient for its contents to be discharged through the previously blocked duct. Unfortunately, the cyst usually regrows again. The worst thing that can happen is for these cysts to become infected, and if antibiotics are not given soon enough, an abscess may form. Any cyst that is unsightly or becomes infected should be cut out. This is a simple procedure that can be performed under local anesthetic by most general practitioners.

Skin abscess

An abscess in or under the skin appears as a red, painful swelling. It is initially hard to touch, but as the pus formation increases, it becomes soft and obviously fluid-filled. In due course, it will 'point' and form a head that will eventually burst and allow the pus to escape. Treatment in the early stages will involve antibiotics by mouth or injection, and hot compresses on the area. Once there is obvious fluid present, the abscess should (under local or general anesthetic) be drained, scraped out, and the drain hole kept open by a small piece of cloth (a wick) to allow any further pus to escape quickly. The wick is changed regularly, and the abscess cavity will slowly reduce in size until it heals. Particularly nasty abscesses may develop around the anus and require quite major surgery to allow for the adequate drainage of pus.

Internal Abscess

Abscesses can occur in almost any organ of the body, and are often not found until they have progressed to quite a large size.

They may be the cause of a previously undiagnosed illness that is usually accompanied by a fever and a general feeling of being unwell. The organs most commonly affected include the brain, liver, breast, lung, tonsils and teeth. All these abscesses must have their pus removed by an open operation under a general or local anesthetic.

Sometimes, a collection of pus will occur outside an organ but inside the abdominal cavity. These most commonly develop in the pelvis and around the liver, and may follow after an operation or another type of abdominal infection such as appendicitis. Antibiotics may be used to stop the spread of the infection but will not cure the abscess. If left untreated, a patient may become severely ill, with new abscesses forming in surrounding tissues.

Please Note:


  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.

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