Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Treatment of Cutaneous Abscesses: Comparison of Emergency Medicine Providers' Practice Patterns


Objectives: Cutaneous abscesses are commonly treated in the emergency department (ED). Although incision and drainage (I&D) remains the standard treatment, there is little high quality evidence to support additional interventions such as pain control, type of incision, and use of irrigation, wound cultures, and packing. Although guidelines exist to support clinician management of abscesses, they do not clearly specify these additional interventions. This study sought to describe the ED treatments administered to adults with uncomplicated superficial cutaneous abscesses, defined as purulent lesions requiring incision and drainage, that could be managed in an ED or outpatient setting.

Methods: Four hundred and seventy four surveys were distributed to 15 EDs across the United States. Participants were queried about their level of training and practice environment as well as specific questions regarding their management of cutaneous abscesses in the ED.

Results: In total, 350 providers responded to the survey (74%). One hundred eighty nine respondents (54%) were attending physicians, 135 (39%) were residents and 26 (7%) were mid-level providers. Most providers (76%) used narcotics for pain management, 71% used local anesthetic over the roof of the abscess, and 60% used local anesthetic in a field block for pain control. Only 48% of responders routinely used irrigation after I&D. Eighty-five percent of responders used a linear incision to drain the abscess and 91% used packing in the wound cavity. Thirty two percent routinely sent wound cultures and 17% of providers routinely prescribed antibiotics. Most providers (73%) only prescribed antibiotics if certain historical factors or physical findings were present on exam. Antibiotic treatment, if used, favored a combination of 2 or more drugs to cover both Streptococcus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcal aureus (47%). Follow up visits were most frequently recommended at 48 hours unless wound was concerning and required closer evaluation.

Conclusion: Variability exists in the treatment strategies for abscess care. The majority of providers used narcotic analgesics in addition to local anesthetic, linear incisions, and packing. Most providers did not irrigate, order wound cultures, or routinely prescribe oral antibiotics unless specific risk factors or physical signs were present. Limited evidence is available at this time to guide these treatment strategies. [West J Emerg Med. 2013;14(1):23–28.]

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View