Diagnosing an abscess 

See your GP if you think you may have an abscess. There are several tests used to diagnose an abscess, depending on where it's located.

Skin abscesses

If you have a skin abscess, your GP will examine the affected area, ask how long you've had the abscess, whether you've injured that area and whether you have any other symptoms.

A sample of pus may be taken from your abscess and sent for testing. This allows the specific bacteria causing the abscess to be identified, which can help determine the best way of treating it. 

If you've had more than one skin abscess, you may be asked to give a urine sample. This will be tested for glucose, which is a sign of diabetes. People with diabetes have an increased risk of developing skin abscesses.

If you have recurring boils and abscesses, your GP may ask the laboratory to test the bacteria further to see if it is producing Panton-Valentine leukocidin (PVL) toxin. Additional treatments may then be recommended, such as a body wash or an antibiotic cream, to stop these bacteria living on the body.

Read more about the causes of abscesses.

Internal abscesses

Abscesses that develop inside your body are more difficult to diagnose than skin abscesses because they cannot be seen. Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and any other health conditions you may have.

If your GP suspects a problem such as an internal abscess, they may refer you for a scan to identify the problem. For example, you may have:

  • computerised tomography (CT) scan  where a series of X-rays are taken to produce an image of the inside of your body
  • a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – where magnetic fields and radio waves are used to produce an image of the inside of your body
  • an ultrasound scan  where high-frequency sound waves are used to produce an image of the inside of your body
  • an X-ray  where high-energy radiation is used to produce an image of the inside of your body

These scans will help determine the size of the abscess and where it is in your body.


Page last reviewed: 25/07/2014

Next review due: 25/07/2016