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Primary Care Management of Skin Abscesses Guided by Ultrasound

(A) Patient abscess with internal loculations (arrow). (B) Patient abscess with tracking (arrows).

(A) Patient abscess with internal loculations (arrow). (B) Patient abscess with tracking (arrows).

Primary care providers often manage skin abscesses in the outpatient setting. Estimating the size and depth of an abscess, and distinguishing abscess from cellulitis by clinical examination can be challenging due to surrounding firm tissue induration. Definitive treatment of abscess requires incision and drainage, and the approach chosen may be altered by abscess size, depth, and surrounding neurovascular structures.


For 31 consecutive patients seen in the primary care outpatient clinic, we prospectively compared the estimated size of skin abscesses by clinical examination with that determined by ultrasound. Prior to incision and drainage, a limited point-of-care ultrasound examination was performed and the abscess dimensions were measured, the depth was determined, and adjacent vascular structures were noted. Based on ultrasound findings, physicians reported whether the decision to perform the procedure or the techniques used to perform the procedure were altered by the scan.


The clinical examination was inaccurate for size estimation by >0.5 cm in 16 of 31 patients (52%). Ultrasound examination changed the physician decision of whether or not incision and drainage should be performed in 7 patients (23%) and altered the technique/approach in an additional 10 patients (32%); thus, management was changed in 55% of cases. Physician confidence in performing the procedure was improved in 16 cases (52%).


Outpatient procedural management of skin abscesses by primary care physicians was altered in more than half the cases by performing point-of-care ultrasound prior to incision and drainage.

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-Laura J.S. Greenlund, MD, PhD, Stephen P. Merry, MD, MPH, Tom D. Thacher, MD, William J. Ward, MD

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

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