Abscesses | Digestive Health | Loyola Medicine


Overview and Facts about Abscesses

Abscesses are small pockets of pus that develop when your body gets an infection. They can occur anywhere in the body, from your internal organs to your skin and teeth. Sensing the presence of infection, your body’s immune system is activated and white blood cells are recruited to fight off the infection. The process forms pus, which is made up of white blood cells, dead tissue, and bacteria or germs.

There are many different types of internal abscesses, but abdominal abscesses are the most common and affect nearly every organ in the abdominal cavity. Abdominal abscesses can severely affect your digestive health, and left untreated, may lead to widespread organ damage or even death.

Types of abscesses include:

  • Abdominal abscesses
  • Amebic liver abscesses
  • Anorectal abscesses
  • Bartholin's abscesses
  • Brain abscesses
  • Epidural abscesses​
  • Peritonsillar abscesses
  • Pyogenic liver abscesses
  • Skin abscesses
  • Spinal cord abscesses
  • Subcutaneous abscesses
  • Tooth abscesses

Signs and Symptoms of Abscesses

Abscesses are generally categorized as skin abscesses or internal abscesses. Abscesses on the skin are easy to identify: usually the area surrounding the abscess becomes red, swollen, and is painful to the touch. However, abscesses affecting other parts of the body are more difficult to detect and typically require imaging techniques like ultrasound or computer tomography (CT). Internal abscesses commonly affect the abdominal organs leading to symptoms of poor digestive health.

Signs and symptoms of skin abscesses include:

  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Warmth

Signs and symptoms of internal abscesses include:

  • Abdominal, back or chest pain
  • Fever
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of organ function
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Weight loss

Causes and Risks of Abscesses

Abscesses are caused by infections from bacteria, viruses and other foreign organisms that invade the body. Injuries or abrasions to the skin that are left untreated can also become infected and form abscesses; good hygiene practices can usually prevent the occurrence of a skin or tooth abscess. In rare cases, an abscess is caused by a parasite. However, this is more likely to occur in a developing country. Intravenous drug use is also considered a risk factor in the formation of abscesses.

Tests and Diagnosis of Abscesses

To diagnose an abscess, your doctor will perform a physical examination, checking for signs and symptoms. Imaging tests (ultrasound, CT, or MRI scans) may be ordered to identify an abscess inside the body. In some cases, a sample of the fluid or pus filling the abscess is tested to determine what type of bacteria, virus or other foreign organism caused the infection.

Treatment and Care for Abscesses

Treatment of abscesses usually involves cutting and draining the abscess (for internal abscesses, this may involve surgery) and applying antibiotics to kill any remaining bacterial infection. Surgery typically involves installing a catheter, a small flexible tube used to reach the abscess, and allowing it to drain over several days. Depending on the abscess location, a needle may be similarly used to drain the abscess.

In cases of abdominal abscesses, a doctor will recommend additional therapies aimed at improving digestive health. A dietitian can help a patient manage specific dietary changes and ensure adequate nutrition.