Everything You Need to Know About Abdominal Abscess (Plus Treatment)

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An abdominal abscess can be extremely painful and dangerous if not drained properly. It’s important to seek medical help if you suspect there is a problem. The abscess is just like any other abscess in the body: it’s a pocket of bacterial pus that can infect the rest of the area if it bursts. The difference is that it’s located in the body.

Here’s absolutely everything you need to know about an abscess in the abdomen. You’ll find the symptoms to look out for, the causes of abscesses and treatment options available. The great news is that it’s one of the easiest problems to diagnose and treat for doctors and relatively routine.

What Exactly Is an Abdominal Abscess?

An abscess is a pocket of pus. The tissue inflames, and bacteria grows inside, which leads to the pus. An abscess can form anywhere around the body and are commonly found on the skin’s surface and in the mouth. They’re common in the areas of the body that can get infected easily, which is why the skin and mouth are problematic areas.

But so is the abdomen. An abdominal abscess is when the abscess forms within the abdominal cavity. This can be within the intestines, in other organs, or even within the skin on the abdomen. They can form at the back, front, or sides. This can make the abscess difficult to locate at first, but doctors see them routinely enough to know the signs, symptoms, and things to look on for tests.

In some cases, the abscesses can go undiscovered and disappear on their own. They don’t cause discomfort and the immune system fights against the bacteria. Some are only found during other medical procedures. However, they can be dangerous if the body can’t fight off the bacteria or the abscess bursts within the body.

An abscess is classed as an abdominal one if it forms from below the diaphragm to within the pelvis. This includes around or on any of the organs, along with the diaphragm lining, and even within the pelvic area. In some cases, they form on the cavity wall or even within the skin and muscle.

Why Do Abdominal Abscesses Form?

There’s no set reason for the pocket of pus to form within the area. In many cases, there are no known reasons and they just appear, but there’s usually something that happens first to the abdomen that alerts doctors to the potential of the abscess. They form because of bacteria in the abdomen, usually due to another health problem. Ruptured bowels, penetrating trauma, or surgery within the area can all lead to abscesses forming. A ruptured appendix can also lead to an abscess forming just below the diaphragm.

Some autoimmune conditions can lead to an increased number of abscesses within the area. This is especially the case for those with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

If bacteria can grow without the immune system fighting back, the abscess will get worse.

Unlike ulcers, there are no contributing risk factors involved. They’re not created by stress, although an ulcer can lead to the development of an abscess on parts of the stomach lining or on other organs.

Symptoms of Abdominal Abscesses

You need to get treated for the abscess to make sure it doesn’t have the chance to burst. While some can go without symptoms, others will have routine symptoms including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Vomiting & nausea
  • And loss of appetite

There may also be a general feeling of being unwell. The pain will usually be where the abscess is located, which usually gives the doctor a place to start the search. There may be other symptoms linked to poor forming organs if the abscess is getting in the way of the usual function.

The exact symptoms really do depend on the location of the abscess. When it’s just below the diaphragm, you can find breathing difficult and suffer from chest pains. Some people also get referred pain in their shoulder, usually just on one side. The pain occurs due to the shared nerves between the diaphragm and shoulder, but the problem isn’t on your shoulder. A cough is also common with this abscess location.

When the abscess is in the middle of the abdomen, the pain is usually just in this area. This type of abscess can form because of a disease within the bowels or intestines or due to a wound to the area. However, if the abscess is at the lower part of the middle, the pain could be felt around the thigh or the rectum. Like with the shoulder, this is linked to the nerves shared by the various parts of the body.

When in the pelvis, the pain is often like many gynecological infection pains. You may even be referred to a gynecologist first to determine the problem. While you will usually experience pain, having intestinal irritation and the need to urinate frequently are common. You can also experience diarrhea, meaning your doctor will usually want to rule out other problems first.

If you have a retroperitoneal abscess, the pocket of pus is lying behind the peritoneum. This is the membrane lining around the abdominal cavity and organs. This is a common abscess for those with appendicitis or pancreatitis and usually occurs due to the inflammation of the organs. Most people will experience the pain in their lower back, which often gets worse when moving the hips.

Then there are the abscesses that form on the organs. One of the rarest types of abscesses is pancreatic ones. They usually form after a serious bout of pancreatitis. You’ll not just have pain, but nausea, vomiting, and fever from the condition. Most people notice the symptoms a week or so after being treated and recovering from pancreatitis.

A liver abscess can form due to bacteria from an infected gallbladder reaching the liver. A blunt wound or abdomen infection can also lead to problems for the liver. Many people with one of these abscesses will lose their appetite, while also suffering from nausea and fever. There isn’t always abdominal pain associated with this type of abscess.

The spleen can also develop an abscess if there’s been an infection within the bloodstream or injury to the area. The main will usually be on the left side, but you can also get it in the back or in the left shoulder.

How Doctors Will Diagnose an Abdominal Abscess

If you believe you have an abscess, you will need to talk to your doctor. Most doctors will run an imaging test to determine whether it is an abscess and not another medical issue. In some cases, blood tests can be used to rule out other conditions.

Ultrasounds are the most commonly used abdominal abscesses. However, depending on location and severity, your doctor may order other imaging tests to see all the organs and tissues.

You’ll likely think of ultrasounds for pregnancy, but they’re useful for seeing problems in the body. The scan uses high-frequency sound waves to help create images of everything in the abdomen. This will usually help to show the abnormal elements in organs or within the wall. If the abscess is behind an organ or on the back, it can be harder to see with the ultrasound.

A CT scan is the next option, which is an X-ray that shows cross-sectional images. You’ll need to lay as still as possible to get the clear images of the abdomen. The benefit is your doctor will get images from multiple angles, helping to get a complete view.

Not only will your doctor see where the abscess is, but also see the size, whether it’s affecting the organs, and whether there are other foreign bodies that may cause the abscess. Doctors can also use the tests to see how much the abscess is growing to make sure treatments are working.

An MRI machine is a third option, using radio waves and magnets. It gives the full view of the abdomen like the CT scan but is a clearer picture. Your doctor will see the tissues and organs better if the abscess is around any of these areas.

Depending on the severity and location of the abscess, your doctor may choose to take some fluid from it. This will help to diagnose the condition of the abscess to help determine the treatment options. This isn’t always possible due to location and size. The method to extract the fluid will also depend on location and risk of bursting.

Treating Your Abdominal Abscess

The best way to treat your abscess is by draining it. This will help to get rid of the bacteria, so there’s no risk of it bursting. The draining of bacteria also helps the immune system repair the inflamed and damaged tissue.

There are a few ways to drain the abscess depending on the location of it. Your doctor will need a CT scan or ultrasound to know the location to insert the needle to avoid damage to the organs. A needle will include a plunger that sucks up all the fluid and then leaves the rest of the abscess behind.

In most of the cases, the fluid will be tested in a lab. This helps to ensure it is just an abscess and there isn’t another medical problem with it. Your doctor can also determine if any antibiotics are necessary to help avoid more abscesses forming.

Drainage isn’t the only option. In some cases, your doctor will prescribe intravenous antibiotics to help kill the bacteria within the abscess. This can help to make the abscess decrease in size alone. This can be used for some of the trickier but less severe options.

In the more severe cases, surgery may be required. This is especially necessary if the abscess or an organ has ruptured. It will also be used when the needle can’t reach the problem to drain it. Sometimes your doctor may believe your abscess needs a better cleanout to avoid growing back or to protect the organs.

When surgery is a necessity, it will be carried out under general anesthetic, so you will be asleep throughout the procedure. The surgeon will locate the abscess through an incision in the abdomen, clean out the area and drain out the abscess. The drain remains in place until the abscess has fully healed, which can take a few days or weeks depending on the size and location.

Complications of Abscesses in the Abdomen

As mentioned, an abdominal abscess will need treatment. While some can go unnoticed for some time, they often grow to the point that they cause a major risk to the health. An abscess can burst, which means the bacterial pus spreads around the whole abdominal cavity. This affects every organ in the area.

Not only will you suffer more pain, but you are at risk of sepsis. This is a serious condition that can cause death if not treated. The process of draining the abscess helps to avoid sepsis becoming a problem since you get rid of the bacteria in the body.

An abscess on the organs can also lead to the organs rupturing. They suffer from blocks as the abscess grows and eventually stretch too far and burst. This will affect your overall health and can put you at risk of death.

Seek Help When You Have an Abdominal Abscess

While abscesses on the outside of the body or in the mouth tend to disappear on their own, this isn’t usually the case with abdominal abscesses. You don’t want to leave them to get worse. They can burst and lead to major health problems. You want to talk to your doctor as soon as you have any of the symptoms. If you’ve suffered certain medical problems or trauma, your doctor will likely already tell you what to look out for to protect your overall health.

Your doctor will refer you for tests and make sure you get the treatment you need. Many of the treatments are routine and simple to perform, protecting your health.

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