Incision and drainage is a simple treatment for cutaneous abscesses located in the upper layers of the skin. It may be routinely recommended for mild to moderate cases and usually requires a quick visit to a doctor’s office or clinic. After the procedure, the doctor may place a drain or recommend antibiotics if the abscess was particularly large. Otherwise, it should heal on its own with minimal disruption for the patient.
Abscesses occur when buildups of fluid develop below the skin, causing a swelling that may turn hot and inflamed. A small deposit of fluid may drain on its own if the patient applies regular hot compresses. If this is not effective, an incision and drainage may be required to address the problem. Care providers can perform this procedure very quickly and the risks are low, although with larger sites there can be concerns about infection.
This starts with cleaning the area to limit the chance of infection by swabbing it with antiseptic or gently washing it. Care providers wash their hands and apply gloves so they can lance the swelling with a sharp instrument. Gauze may be placed below the site to catch pus, which can squirt out when the pressure is relieved. Incision and drainage can require the application of pressure to squeeze matter out of the wound, and the insertion of a small probe to loosen any clots of material. The wound can be washed and bandaged to finish the procedure.
In the event of a large swelling that runs more deeply under the skin, the care provider might recommend placing a drain after incision and drainage. A small tube can be placed and taped or stitched into place to allow fluid to drain out of it over the next few days. As the site heals, the tube can be withdrawn. Antibiotics can also be recommended if the care provider is worried about the risk of infection after incision and drainage.
The simplicity of this procedure may lead patients to try it at home. This can be risky, because they may introduce infectious material while lancing the swelling, or could hit a delicate structure like a nerve. Home care for abscesses can start with warm compresses and if this is not effective, a care provider can be consulted on the next step. These conditions do not resolve on their own and it is important to get treatment to prevent complications caused by large swellings that may eat into underlying tissues.