Abscess vs. Cyst: Understanding Differences

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Abscess vs. CystThe problem with certain medical issues is that many of them tend to look and even feel the same as other medical issues. Let’s take an abscess vs. cyst for an example.

If you had to make a judgment call just by looking at them on the surface, no one would blame you for mixing up the two. With that in mind, we thought we would explore the difference between abscess and cyst, as well as the similarities, definitions and other things you may need to know when trying to recognize either mass. Is it a cyst or is it a skin abscess? By the time you’re done reading this article, you will have a better idea.

Abscess vs. Cyst Definitions

So, you’ve noticed a small bump forming on your skin. Is it a cyst or is it an abscess? What exactly are the two different issues?

A cyst is a collection of cells that has formed into a sac. This sac can be located in many different areas of the body. Cysts can form on organs, around the joints, on the skin’s surface, etc. The sac itself can be filled with a liquid like sebum (the body’s lubricant for hair follicles), air, or even hair and teeth (although this is a rarity). It should be noted that there are countless types of cysts; this is just a general overview.

An abscess occurs when pus has built up under the skin. The abscess can cause redness, tenderness in the surrounding skin area, as well as a bump caused by swelling. The interior of the bump may also contain hair follicles. Those who are more susceptible to infection, such as patients going through treatments for cancer or with any immune deficiencies, tend to be more prone to abscesses.

On the surface, both of these sound similar. Both are bumps on the skin. Both abscesses and cysts tend to be filled with fluid or something else that is not particularly pleasant sounding. Both can be a pain and cause the skin to be tender and sore. What’s the actual difference? Actually, there are a few differences.

The Difference between Abscess and Cyst

When it comes right down to it, there are numerous differences between a cyst and an abscess, and a number of them cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Abscesses tend to develop due to infection—which partly explains why they are filled with pus. Cysts, on the other hand, form due to uncontrolled cell mutation. These mutations are still a little bit of a mystery, but essentially, the cyst is formed out of a cell structure similar to what surrounds it. Subsequently, that structure is filled with air, liquid, or solid matter. The bump is created and then fills. An abscess bump is created by the pus.

There is also a difference in how the two medical issues are treated. A cyst can be treated in various ways, but sometimes it doesn’t need to be treated at all. Often a cyst will disappear on its own, with little in the way of treatment. If necessary, the cyst can be removed surgically. An abscess, alternatively, needs to be drained in a procedure known as lancing. Beyond that, abscesses must have the underlying issues that have caused them addressed. Once the infection has been cleaned up and the abscess has been lanced, the abscess should disappear.

Generally speaking, a cyst won’t be sore or painful unless it has become infected, whereas an abscess begins with an infection, so it tends to be red and sore right from the start.

Abscess vs. Cyst: Why It Matters

They are both bumps; they can both be sore. What does the difference between cysts and abscesses actually mean? Does it matter at all? While they are very similar, the underlying causes mean that treatment for each is very different. Antibiotics might clear up the infection that causes an abscess, but they may not do anything for a cyst. Regardless, if you are unsure of which growth is currently afflicting you, go to see a doctor. A doctor can identify what it is and how it should be treated, or advise you of whether to just leave it alone and let it work itself out.

Related Article:

Synovial Cyst: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Cyst vs. Tumor: Understanding the Differences and Similarities

Pilonidal Cyst Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Cysts on Inner Thigh: Causes and Home Remedies

“Skin Problems & Treatments Guide,” Boots WebMD; http://www.webmd.boots.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/guide/abcess, last accessed July 5, 2017.
“Abscesses,” Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abscess, last accessed July 5, 2017.
“Cyst,” Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyst, last accessed July 5, 2017.
“Abscess,” NHS; http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/abscess/Pages/Introduction.aspx, last accessed July 5, 2017.