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What is an Abscess and what is a Cyst?

A skin abscess, which is often called a boil, is a bump that forms when pus collects within the tissue of the body. An abscess can show up on any place of the body, and for the most part is harmless. Common areas include your armpit, base of your spine, groin, anus or a tooth. An Abscess can be painful and warm to the touch. People who have weaker immune systems tend to get these more often than others.

Doctor checking child’s arm for abscess or cyst

A skin cyst is slightly different than an abscess. They are still a closed pocket of tissue, but may be filled with fluid, pus or other material. These can also show up anywhere on the body, but are typically slow-growing and painless. Skin cysts are commonly described as feeling like large peas under the skin.

Abscesses & Cysts

Causes & Treatment

What causes abscesses or cysts?

Skin abscesses are caused by the inflammatory response to an infectious process, usually bacteria entering the skin. This can happen as the result of the obstruction of sweat or oil glands, an inflamed hair follicle, or a minor puncture of the skin. The inflammatory response triggers the formation of a cavity to contain the infection and prevent it from traveling to other parts of the body. The interior of the abscess then liquefies causing pus and localized swelling to develop. This combination of pressure and inflammation causes pain.

  • Skin cysts typically develop due to an infection, clogged oil glands, or around a foreign object, such as an earring.

How are abscesses and cysts treated?

Unlike many infections, abscesses typically cannot be treated by antibiotics alone. Frequently, they must be treated through a process called “incision and drainage” (I&D) by a medical professional. Most abscesses will continue to get worse if left untreated, so it’s important to see a medical professional as early as possible.

Although skin cysts do not cause any pain unless they rupture or become infected, they won’t disappear without treatment. In some cases, they may require drainage much like an abscess, but this will not cure the cyst. If it is inflamed, a cortisone injection may be used to shrink it. If the cyst is not responding to treatment or continually reoccurs, surgery may be required to remove it and prevent further issues.

To inquire about having an abscess or cyst drained and removed, visit one our Midwest Express Clinic urgent care locations.


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