HomeHealth A-ZWhat’s the difference between a cyst and an abscess?

What’s the difference between a cyst and an abscess?

A cyst is a sac-like pocket or cavity that contains fluid, air or any other substance making it feel like a hard lump. It can form inside your body and or on your skin surface with abnormal cells that form around the outer layer of this sac. There are different types of cysts, and most of them are benign and non-cancerous.

Certain cysts may require medical attention due to the discomfort caused by them. This depends on the following factors:

  • Type of cyst
  • Location of the cyst
  • Inflammation or infection of the cyst
  • Discomfort or irritation caused by the cyst

On the other hand, an abscess is a pus-filled pocket, usually caused by a bacterial infection that collects in tissues, organs, or spaces inside the body. It can develop anywhere in your body, both under your skin or inside the body. The pus is caused by the white blood cells released by your immune system to fight the infection. An abscess is often is painful. A small abscess may also be called a boil or a furuncle and usually appears within or below the skin’s surface.

What are some of the common types of cysts and abscesses?

A few common types of cysts include:

  • Epidermoid cyst: It is a benign cyst that is most commonly found on the face, head, back, neck, or genitals. An epidermoid cyst can become swollen and painful if infected or if it is inflamed.
  • Sebaceous cyst: It is a non-cancerous cyst usually found on the face, neck, behind the ear or even on the torso. It is usually caused due to damage to the sebaceous glands and may cause pressure and pain.
  • Ganglion cyst: Also known as bible cyst, It is a non-cancerous lump that is typically round or oval filled with a jelly-like fluid. They commonly develop on tendons or joints of wrists and hands.
  • Baker’s cyst: Also called a popliteal cyst, it is a fluid-filled swelling that develops at the back of the knee. It can be caused due to arthritis, cartilage injury, or due to repetitive stress causing inflammation.

Apart from these, ovarian cyst, breast cyst, pilar cyst, mucous cyst, branchial cleft cyst, and perineural cyst are also different types of cysts.

Some common types of abscess are:

  • Abdominal abscess: Located in the abdomen, an abdominal abscess is a pocket of infected pus and fluid. It can be located near or inside the pancreas, kidneys, liver or other organs with sometimes more than one abscess at a time.
  • Brain abscess: Commonly occurs due to bacterial or fungal infection; a brain abscess is a pus-filled swelling in the brain.
  • Spinal cord abscess is a rare condition caused by an infection inside the spine leading to a pus-filled swelling.
  • Tooth abscess: Tooth abscess is an infection with a pocket of pus that is caused by bacteria. It can be due to poor or old dental work and from an untreated cavity leading to tooth decay.

What is the difference between a cyst and an abscess?

Here is how you can differentiate between a cyst and an abscess:

  • A cyst is a sac-like pocket enclosed with abnormal cells, while an abscess is a pus-filled infection.
  • The growth of a cyst is usually very slow and without pain unless it is enlarged. On the other hand, an abscess is often red and swollen, causing pain and irritation.
  • When a cyst becomes infected, it can form an abscess. However, an abscess can form on its own and doesn’t have to begin as a cyst.
  • Most of the cysts disappear with time. Abscesses usually require drainage to accelerate healing.
  • Unless infected, cysts do not require medications such as antibiotics. Abscesses may require medications to promote healing.

How can a cyst or an abscess be prevented?

Most cysts cannot be prevented except for a few. For ovarian cysts, hormonal contraceptives may be used to prevent the formation of new cysts. Pilonidal cysts can be avoided by keeping the skin clean and dry.

You can prevent abscess by following these steps:

  • Wash hands regularly
  • Clean injuries and put antibacterial ointments and cover it to avoid infection
  • Keep skin clean and dry
  • Shave carefully, especially underarms, to avoid nicks and cuts
  • Avoid sharing personal items such as clothing and razors to reduce the risk of an abscess

What is the treatment for a cyst and an abscess?

The treatment of a cyst or an abscess depends on its location. Most cysts do not require any treatment unless it is causing any pain or discomfort or if it has become infected. Abscesses require treatment to reduce pain and discomfort and to avoid the spread of the infection to other parts of the body.

Cysts and abscesses that are present in the internal organs are usually not felt or seen. In order to identify them, imaging techniques such as X-ray, CT scan and MRI are used. In addition, blood tests may also help in identifying infections.

Large cysts may require surgical removal. The cysts may sometimes be drained or aspirated by inserting a needle or a catheter into the cavity. If the cyst is not accessible, then radiologic imaging is used to guide the needle or catheter insertion. The removed liquid may be examined to determine whether there were cancerous cells present or not. If the cyst is cancerous, it may be surgically removed.

Abscesses are usually opened and drained. The procedure involves numbing the area around the abscess using local anaesthesia. The area is covered with an antiseptic solution and sterile towels. The abscess is then opened, and the pus is drained out along with any debris. It might be kept open for over a day with a packing inserted into the cavity for complete drainage of the infection. The packing is then covered with a bandage, and the patient will be advised on home care and sometimes oral medication for faster healing.

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