What Does an Abscess Look Like?
Reading time: 3 min

If you find a swollen, discolored spot on your skin, it may be a pimple or a blister. Or—especially if the bump appears near a recent cut or other open wound—it may be an abscess, which is potentially dangerous.

What’s an Abscess?

Most “skin bumps” are swellings triggered by the presence of bacteria and consequent accumulation of pus (the white or yellowish fluid that forms from dead cells as outside bacteria and the body’s white blood cells battle for control of the wound site). The swelling disappears after the bacteria are killed off. But where bacteria are adequately powerful or abundant to put up a lengthy battle, the swelling may grow large and deep.

The name “abscess” is typically applied to large, persistent swellings—the kind with the least chance of disappearing on their own. Not all abscesses occur on visible areas of the body (oral abscesses are a frequent cause of toothache, and internal abscesses can form on various body organs), but a skin abscess typically displays the following characteristics:

  • Painfulness
  • Large, often growing, size
  • Round shape
  • Unusually hard or “squishy” texture
  • Warmer temperature than the rest of the skin
  • Reddish color on the lump and/or on surrounding skin.

The warmth and reddish color are due to inflammation—the immune system’s efforts to isolate and destroy the invasive bacteria. Where the abscess is severe, rising temperatures can heat the whole body and generate fever.

Dangers of an Untreated Abscess

Any suspected abscess should be checked by a doctor, especially if:

  • It lingers for over two weeks
  • It’s over two inches in diameter
  • It starts to visibly expand
  • Fever or other symptoms develop outside the immediate area.

While not every abscess is serious, ignoring a persistent one can allow the infection to gain strength, perhaps leading to a whole cluster of abscesses, or to gangrene (body tissue damaged beyond the point of self-repair). Or even to the worst-case scenario: septic shock.

Septic shock begins with sepsis, which develops as “combat fatigue” when the body’s struggle against infection is prolonged and inflammation is becoming chronic. Pulse rate speeds up. Fever rises (or the body temperature may swing from hot to cold). The patient may become disoriented or lethargic, suffer dizzy spells, or have difficulty breathing (a bluish discoloration of the skin is a sure warning to seek medical help immediately).

If the sepsis remains untreated and progresses to septic shock, the sufferer’s blood pressure and body temperature begin to drop rapidly. At this point, widespread organ damage is imminent, and the situation a life-or-death matter requiring immediate hospitalization.

There are 1.7 million cases of sepsis and septic shock reported in the United States every year—270,000 of them fatal.

Drug Injection and Abscesses

Septic or otherwise, a significant number of abscesses begin with bacteria entering the body through self-inflicted wounds. And one common cause of these wounds is the careless use of needles to inject drugs.

Anyone suffering from drug addiction, especially in advanced stages where injection is most common, is in a high-risk group for an abscess becoming serious due to a weakened immune system. And yet, addiction often means that a person is too embarrassed—or too afraid of possible consequences—to see a doctor and have to admit that drug use is out of control. So, many people conceal abscesses and other physical problems resulting from addiction, which only allows the problems and the addiction to get worse.

As already noted, abscesses can turn deadly if ignored. Yet most are easily treated in their early stages. So too with addiction itself: the sooner medical treatment is sought, the better the prognosis for recovery without lasting damage. If you have an abscess (or any other injury or illness) connected to addiction, swallow your pride and see a doctor about both problems. Getting detox and addiction treatment is the bravest and best thing you can do for yourself.

Get Help for Drug Addiction

If many people are embarrassed to admit that they developed abscesses from injecting drugs, many more people are embarrassed to admit that their drug use (in any form) has spiraled out of control and into addiction. But as with abscesses and other physical symptoms, a problem denied is a problem that gets worse and worse. Treatment at Hope by the Sea is confidential, medically sound, and effective. Contact us today to learn more. Hope Starts Here!

Recommended articles: