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Ann Emerg Med. 2011 May;57(5):483-91.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2010.11.021. Epub 2011 Jan 15.

A randomized controlled trial of incision and drainage versus ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration for skin abscesses and the effect of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

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  • 1Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, Worcester, MA 01655, USA.



The incidence of skin and soft tissue infections has increased dramatically during the last decade, in part because of increased prevalence of community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). Incision and drainage is considered the primary intervention; however, some clinicians prefer ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration because it represents a less invasive alternative. Our hypothesis is that ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration is equivalent to incision and drainage in treating simple skin and soft tissue abscesses.


This study was a nonblinded randomized controlled trial. Patients with uncomplicated superficial abscesses were randomized to incision and drainage with packing or ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration. Purulence obtained from the abscess was cultured to identify the causative organism. Bedside ultrasonography was performed pre- and postintervention to confirm the presence or absence of an abscess cavity. Patients were followed up at 48 hours (in person by a clinician) and on day 7 (telephone follow-up by research staff). The primary outcome was a combination of sonographic resolution and clinical resolution of the signs and symptoms of ongoing infection at day 7. The signs and symptoms of ongoing infection include increasing pain, erythema, and the presence of pus. Resolution was assessed with both sonographic resolution (day 0 and day 2) and improvement of clinical symptoms (day 2) and resolution of clinical symptoms (day 7) without further intervention.


A total of 101 patients were enrolled, 54 incision and drainage and 47 ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration patients. At initial presentation, 60% (95% confidence interval [CI] 45% to 70%) of needle aspirations yielded little or no purulence, despite sonographic visualization of an abscess cavity and sonographic guidance during the procedure. The overall success of ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration was 26% (95% CI 18% to 44%) compared with 80% (95% CI 66% to 89%) success in patients randomized to incision and drainage. The difference between groups was 54% (95% CI 35% to 69%). Overall success of both incision and drainage and ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration was lower in patients with CA-MRSA. Patients with CA-MRSA (n=33) were less likely to receive successful drainage with needle aspiration (8% versus 55%) or incision and drainage (61% versus 89%). The difference for needle aspiration and incision and drainage was 47% (95% CI 15% to 57%) and 28% (95% CI 4% to 45%), respectively.


Ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration is insufficient therapy for skin abscesses. The presence of CA-MRSA decreases the success of both incision and drainage and ultrasonographically guided needle aspiration.

Copyright © 2010 American College of Emergency Physicians. Published by Mosby, Inc. All rights reserved.

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