Abscess Treatment (Child)

An abscess is an area of skin where bacteria have caused fluid (pus) to form. Bacteria normally live on the skin and don’t cause harm. But sometimes bacteria enter the skin through a hair root, or cut or scrape in the skin. If bacteria become trapped under the skin, an abscess can form. An abscess can be caused by an ingrown hair, puncture wound, or insect bite. It can also be caused by a blocked oil gland, pimple, or cyst. Abscesses often occur on skin that is hairy or exposed to friction and sweat. An abscess near a hair root is called a boil.

At first, an abscess is red, raised, firm, and sore to the touch. The area can also feel warm. Then the area will collect pus.

A baby with an abscess may need to stay in the hospital overnight. A small or new abscess is first treated with an antibiotic cream or ointment. Or the child may take antibiotics by mouth.

The abscess may open on its own and drain. If the abscess gets bigger, it will be cut and the pus drained out. This is known as incision and drainage, or I and D. It's also sometimes called lancing. This can be done in a healthcare provider’s office using local anesthesia. The abscess will likely drain for several days before it dries up. It can take several weeks to heal.

Home care

Your child's healthcare provider may prescribe an oral or topical antibiotic for your child. They may also prescribe a pain medicine. Follow all instructions when using these medicines for your child. Report any side effects to your child's healthcare provider.

General care

  • Keep the area covered with a nonstick gauze bandage, as instructed.

  • Don’t cut, pop, or squeeze the abscess. This can be very painful and can spread infection.

  • Apply warm, moist compresses to the abscess for 20 minutes up to 3 times daily, as advised by the healthcare provider. Always wash the compresses after use to prevent spreading the infection. This can help the abscess become soft and form a head of pus. It may drain on its own.

  • If the abscess drains, cover the area with a nonstick gauze bandage. Use as little tape as possible to prevent irritating your child’s skin. Then call your healthcare provider and follow all instructions. An abscess may drain for several days. It will need to stay covered. Throw away all soiled bandages with care.

  • Be careful to prevent the infection from spreading. Wash your hands with soap and clean, running water before and after caring for your child. Wash in hot water any clothes, bedding, cloth diapers, and towels that come into contact with the pus. Don’t let other family members share unwashed clothes, bedding, or towels.

  • Have your child wear clean clothes daily. If your baby's abscess is on the buttocks, carefully throw away wipes and disposable diapers.

  • Change the bandage if you see pus in it. Wash the area gently with soap and warm water or as instructed by the healthcare provider. Gently remove any adhesive that sticks to the skin. Do this with mineral oil or petroleum jelly on a cotton ball. Carefully discard all soiled bandages and cotton balls.

  • Don’t have your child sit in bath water. This can spread the infection. Have your child take a shower instead of a bath while gently washing the area with soap and warm water.

  • If your child's provider prescribed antibiotics, your child shouldn't stop taking them until all the medicine is finished. Or until the provider says they can stop.

  • If your child has pain, give pain medicine as advised by your child’s provider. Don't give your child aspirin unless told to do so. Don't give your child any other medicine without first asking the provider.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your child’s healthcare provider, or as advised. The provider may want to see the abscess once it becomes soft and forms a head of pus. Call the provider if it starts to drain on its own.

Special note to parents

Take care to prevent the infection from spreading. Wash your hands with soap and clean, running water before and after caring for the abscess. Make sure your child or other family members don't touch the abscess. Contact your healthcare provider if other family members have symptoms.

When to get medical advice

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Fever (see "Fever and children" below)

  • The abscess gets bigger

  • The abscess comes back

  • Redness and swelling gets worse

  • Pain that doesn’t go away, or that gets worse. In babies, pain may show up as fussing that can’t be soothed.

  • Bad-smelling fluid leaking from the area

  • Red streaks in the skin around the area

  • Your child has a reaction to the medicine

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds and uses of digital thermometers. They include:

  • Rectal. For children younger than 3 years, a rectal temperature is the most accurate.

  • Forehead (temporal). This works for children age 3 months and older. If a child under 3 months old has signs of illness, this can be used for a first pass. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Ear (tympanic). Ear temperatures are accurate after 6 months of age, but not before.

  • Armpit (axillary). This is the least reliable but may be used for a first pass to check a child of any age with signs of illness. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Mouth (oral). Don’t use a thermometer in your child’s mouth until they are at least 4 years old.

Use the rectal thermometer with care. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. Insert it gently. Label it and make sure it’s not used in the mouth. It may pass on germs from the stool. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, ask the healthcare provider what type to use instead. When you talk with any healthcare provider about your child’s fever, tell them which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your young child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child. Follow your provider’s specific instructions.

Fever readings for a baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

Fever readings for a child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • Fever of 100.4° (38°C) or higher in baby younger than 3 months

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

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