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Abscesses from IV Drug Use

What Is an Abscess?

If you’re an intravenous drug user, you’re at increased risk for developing abscesses and other types of skin infections and inflammation.

Bacterial infections are among the most common health risks associated with any kind of drug use that involves an injected route of administration – e.g., intravenous, intramuscular and subcutaneous needle injections.
Man being bandaged
A skin abscess is a walled-off collection of pus within and underneath the skin. It can feel warm and painful to the touch and appear as a red, raised bump on the skin.1 Abscesses can develop when viruses, bacteria, parasites or other foreign substance gets introduced to and entrapped underneath the skin.

As the skin gets infected, your body’s immune system tries to fight the infection by sending white blood cells to the infection site, causing inflammation. Pus forms from the resulting mixture of germs, dead tissue and white blood cells – both dead and living.

Why IV Drug Users Are Susceptible to Bacterial Infection

Bacterial infections are commonly caused by the user’s own communal bacteria. In other words, the bacteria naturally living on a healthy person’s skin – for example, various species of staph and strep bacteria – are the usual cause of a painful and sometimes life-threatening infection. When a needle comes in contact with dirt and bacteria as it pierces the skin, it transfers them through the epidermis, sometimes causing a sub-dermal infection and abscess to develop.

How to Recognize an Abscess

Abscesses are usually fairly straightforward to recognize. Abscesses are typically:

  • Round or oval-shaped with dark, pus-filled masses at the center.
  • Anywhere on the body – but more commonly located at or around the injection site.
  • Painful, swollen and tender to the touch.

If allowed to grow unchecked, the abscess may spread into the bloodstream or into deeper tissue, where the septic contents can create further health complications.

Complications of an Untreated Abscess

Though skin abscesses can resolve on their own, they can lead to the following complications if left untreated:

  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Sepsis, or the spreading of the infection throughout the body.
    • Skin tissue death (gangrene and possible limb amputation).
    • Endocarditis (inflammation of the heart lining).
    • Infection of the bone (osteomyelitis).
  • Recurrent skin infection.
  • Death.

Treating an Abscess

If an intravenous drug user is unable or unwilling to visit a physician for treatment, certain smaller, more superficial abscesses can be treated at home. Larger abscesses – or abscesses with red streaks around the abscess – will be need to be treated professionally.


If the abscess is less than one centimeter or one half inch across, it may be possible for you to treat yourself at home2:

  1. DO heat the abscess with a warm compress. The heat may help the infection by promoting drainage. Applying the warm compress on the affected area for 30 minutes four times per day may help the abscess heal on its own.
  2. DO protect against contamination. Take care to wash your hands, towels, and clothing after touching the infected region.
  3. DO NOT cut or squeeze the abscess yourself. 

Epsom Salt Baths

Soaking in an Epsom salt bath has also been proposed as another method to promote healing.3 Epsom salt naturally draws toxins from the body and is very inexpensive and easy to use. Do not use an epsom salt bath, however, if4:

  • You’re diabetic.
  • You’re pregnant.
  • You’re allergic to sulfur.
  • You notice any red streaks around the abscess. Red streaks could be a sign that the infection has spread – consult a physician immediately.

Get Help at the Doctor’s

If the abscess is larger than two centimeters in diameter, however – or if the abscess you’re trying to treat at home has red streaks, won’t heal or recurs, you will need to get professional treatment. A doctor will likely numb and drain the area of infection so your wound can heal. They will take bacterial cultures from the wound and prescribe a round of antibiotics that broadly covers skin flora bacteria. Antibiotics may be adjusted at the point that the specifically involved bacteria is identified.

Antibiotics commonly used to treat abscesses include5,6:

  1. Intravenous administration of vancomycin.
  2. Oral administration of antibiotics that fight MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), including:
    • Vancomycin.
    • Dalbavancin.
    • Telavancin.
    • Clindamycin.
    • Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole.
    • Doxycycline.
    • Minocycline.
    • Linezolid.
    • Tedizolid.

If you’re worried about visiting a doctor with your abscess because you’re afraid you’ll be judged for your IV drug problem, consider the consequences of not going. Abscesses are in many ways like any other bacterial infection. As they grow, they become increasingly difficult to effectively treat and, when left untreated, they can spread and cause a range of complications from infection – including even death.

How to Avoid Developing an Abscess

Consistent use of clean needles and rubbing alcohol before injection can reduce the risk of developing a skin abscess from IV drug use but will not eliminate it entirely. Any time the skin is pierced with foreign object, the risk of infection will remain. The best way to avoid the development of skin abscesses is to eliminate the underlying and more dangerous problem – which is the drug use, itself.

Is it Time to Seek Help for Your IV Drug Problem?

Man afraid at doctors'If you’re an intravenous drug user, your behavior indicates you have been choosing to live life on the edge. Not only do you risk losing money, your friends, your relationships or your job – you also risk that your next high could be your last. You could be setting yourself up for a serious illness that could end in your premature death.

Ask yourself if you want to continue living your current lifestyle and running these risks – or if you want start making change happen now. Recovery from IV drug addiction is possible. It will not only improve your odds of living a longer life, but it will also improve your capacity to embrace a higher quality of life.

Drug Rehab Treatment Facility Types

If you’re ready to end your addiction and start looking into treatment, you will want to familiarize yourself with a few of the different rehab facility types available to you:

  1. Luxury rehab facilities offer 24/7 residential addiction treatment in the context of a wide range of plush, resort-like amenities.
  2. Executive rehab facilities also provide residential addiction treatment alongside high-end amenities – only they also cater to busy professionals by offering the resources and program structure that lets them maintain an active involvement at their workplace throughout recovery.
  3. Standard rehab facilities offer both residential (“inpatient”) and non-residential (“outpatient”) addiction treatment. While standard programs do not offer the same range of plush amenities that are offered at luxury or executive programs, they do come with a lower price tag – which makes them more affordable for those with more limited budgets.

Learn More and Find Treatment

Your recovery from IV drug addiction is important. Contact us at 1-888-744-0789 to speak to a recovery advisor. We would love to help answer your questions and offer you help to find the best drug rehab for your particular needs and circumstances.


  1. Summanen, P. H., Talan, D. A., Strong, C., McTeague, M., Bennion, R., Thompson, J. E. Jr., et al. Bacteriology of skin and soft-tissue infections: comparison of infections in intravenous drug users and individuals with no history of intravenous drug use. Clin Infect Dis, 20(2), S279.
  2. Boils and carbuncles. Mayo Clinic.
  3. Watson, L. (2010). Epsom salts – baths and beyond.
  4. Magnes. Mayo Clinic.
  5. Bobrow, B. J., Pollack, C. V. Jr., Gamble, S., Seligson, R. A. (1997). Incision and drainage of cutaneous abscesses is not associated with bacteremia in afebrile adults. Ann Emerg Med, 29(3), 404.
  6. Wilson, W., Taubert, K. A., Gewitz, M., Lockhart, P. B., Baddour, L. M., Levison, M., et al. (2007). Prevention of infective endocarditis: guidelines from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116(15), 1736.