Zits are practically a rite of passage entering the teenage years, but a good number of adults experience acne long after the prom is a distant memory. There are different types of acne, as well as more severe blemishes that fall into the category of abscess. It's important to know the difference between these conditions so that you can get the right treatment.

Woman taking care of her skin

Examine Skin

An abscess is a general term for any lump or swelling filled with pus, and it can occur anywhere on the body. In contrast, acne usually occurs as groups of pimples and blackheads that most often occur on the face, shoulders, chest and back. However, a more severe form of acne, known as acne vulgaris, can appear as pustules or cysts, which also contain pus. These tend to reside closer to the surface of skin, while an abscess, also referred to as a boil, typically originates further beneath the skin.

Note Secondary Symptoms

Pain, swelling, local redness, nausea and fever may accompany an abscess. Acne doesn't usually present with most of these symptoms, although there is likely to be redness and tenderness around the affected area. Unless a pimple has progressed to become a pus-filled cyst, acne is usually characterized by red spots, moderately raised domes (pimples) and blackheads and whiteheads.

Assess Risk Factors

Abscesses are commonly caused by a bacterial infection or an insect bite. Acne is caused by an excess production of sebum, which then combines with dirt and dead skin cells to form plugs that block pores. The pus in an acne abscess is formed by white blood cells that come to attack the plug, which is responsible for redness and inflammation. Sometimes an abscess forms in a hair follicle, a condition known as folliculitis, and is the result of an ingrown (trapped) hair. Sometimes, the hair is visible within the abscess.

Be Kind to Skin

No amount of scrubbing will remove pimples and will only further irritate already sensitive skin. That said, most cases of acne or abscess can be treated at home with warm, moist washcloths to help bring trapped sebum and pus to the surface. Resist the urge to squeeze, which can result in further infection and permanent scarring. An abscess, if very severe, is typically treated with antibiotics and pain medications. Sometimes your doctor will want to drain the abscess surgically to relieve swelling, pressure and pain. She may also withdraw some of the fluid in the abscess to test it for bacteria.

Know When to Get Help

The occasional breakout is not usually cause for alarm, and a balanced diet and lifestyle, as well as good skin care, is usually sufficient to avoid serious problems. However, if you suspect that you have an abscess and you also have a chronic condition or compromised immunity from receiving chemotherapy or an organ transplant, seek medical attention right away. Left untreated, a severe abscess, especially in a person with weakened immunity, could potentially lead to further complications, including, infection of the sac around the heart, the blood or bone. Also note that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is often caused by an untreated abscess.