A chest abscess tends to refer to an abscess in the lungs. This also includes abscesses in the muscles of the chest wall, between the lung tissue and the lining of the chest cavity.

An abscess is a painful collection of pus.

Abscesses can occur almost anywhere in the body, for example, the skin or mouth. Treatment typically involves antibiotics and draining them.

Left untreated, chest abscesses can cause serious health conditions.

This article will explain what a chest abscess is, what causes it, and the typical symptoms. It will also look at diagnosis, treatment, and possible complications.

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The location of the abscess in the body can determine what symptoms a person might experience.

Some people with a lung abscess will have no symptoms at all. Others may experience:

Abscesses can develop when bacteria, viruses, or foreign objects trigger the body’s natural defense mechanism.

When the immune system detects a threat, it sends white blood cells to the affected area. These cells cause inflammation to protect the tissue while it regenerates.

During this process, living and dead white blood cells mix with dead tissue and germs, forming pus. When this collects in the body, it can create a pocket. This pus-filled pocket is an abscess.

Infection is the main cause of lung abscesses. Not all lung infections will lead to a lung abscess. However, some things can make it more likely. Doctors call these risk factors.

Risk factors for developing a lung abscess include the following:

Having a compromised immune system

People who are immunocompromised are more likely to develop a lung abscess following infection than people who are not. That includes:

  • people who are living with HIV or AIDS
  • people have had an organ transplant
  • people who take immunosuppressive medication — for example, to treat an autoimmune condition

Diabetes and smoking are also risk factors for chest abscesses too.

Being at risk of aspiration

Aspiration can happen when particles of food and fluids enter the lungs rather than the stomach. This can lead to infections and chest abscesses.

Some factors can increase the risk of experiencing aspiration. These can include:

  • having trouble chewing or swallowing
  • having certain medical conditions — for example, severe dental issues, seizure disorder, muscular dystrophies, and cerebral palsy, among others
  • misusing alcohol

To diagnose a lung abscess, doctors will usually recommend a chest X-ray. They may also suggest a computerized tomography (CT) scan. Both scans allow healthcare professionals to look for any changes inside the chest.

Doctors may also take a sputum (or phlegm) sample, which can help determine the type of lung infection a person has.

The location of the abscess may determine the treatment approach.

In most cases, doctors will recommend antibiotics to clear the abscess-causing infection.

If the abscess is large or does not go away with antibiotics, doctors may recommend draining the abscess, which involves cutting into the abscess to let the pus out. This will typically involve surgery.

Another way to drain the abscess is through endoscopy. This procedure uses a long flexible tube with a camera and a cutting tool at its end.

If doctors do not diagnose and treat lung abscesses, it can lead to complications, such as:

  • abscess bursting, which can lead to pus leaking into the lungs
  • scarring of the lungs
  • trapped lung, meaning the lung is unable to expand for breathing
  • respiratory failure

Complications such as trapped lung and respiratory failure can be life threatening.

Doctors typically classify lung abscesses as primary or secondary. Primary lung abscesses occur in people who otherwise have no other lung problems. Secondary lung abscesses occur in people who have underlying lung problems.

Doctors cure around 90% of primary lung abscesses. Whereas secondary lung abscesses are more likely to lead to complications. Key factors to improving the outlook are early diagnosis and treatment.

Abscesses can form anywhere in the body. They are pockets of pus that can develop as the body fights an infection. A chest abscess usually refers to an abscess in the lungs.

Diagnosis will usually involve a mix of scans and physical exams, as well as sputum or blood tests. Doctors will usually recommend antibiotics to clear the infection. In some cases of lung abscess, doctors typically drain it.

Most cases of chest abscesses can be successfully treated, though they may sometimes reappear.