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Aspiration of breast abscesses

Three Part Question

In [a patient with a breast abscess] is [needle aspiration as good as incision and drainage] in [achieving resolution and minimising recurrence]?

Clinical Scenario

A 28 year old lactating woman attends the emergency department with a history of pain in the breast. The patient has been taking antibiotics prescribed by her GP for 2 days without relief. On examination she has an abscess in her left breast. You wonder whether needle aspiration is an option or whether she needs formal incision and drainage.

Search Strategy

Medline 1966-01/04 using the OVID interface.
[breast abscess$.mp OR {(exp breast OR breast$.mp) AND (exp abscess OR abscess$.mp)}] AND [ OR exp needles OR needle$.mp]

Search Outcome

Altogether 63 papers were found, of which 6 were relevant to question and of sufficient quality for inclusion.

Relevant Paper(s)

Author, date and country Patient group Study type (level of evidence) Outcomes Key results Study Weaknesses
Tan SM and Low SC,
21 consecutive patients with breast abscessProspective case seriesClinical course19 patients successfully treated by needle aspirationNo control Small study
Schwarz RJ and Shrestha R,
30 patients with 33 breast abscesses treated by needle aspirationProspective case seriesClinical course18 cases require only single aspiration. 9 cases required multiple aspirations, 6 cases required incision and drainageNo control Small study
Dixon JM,
18 consecutive patients with non-lactational breast abscesses Aspiration (10) vs local anaesthetic drainage (7) or both (1)Clinical trialClinical courseAll abscesses resolved within 2 weeksNot randomised Small study
Patient satisfactionAll patients expressed satisfaction
Hook GW and Ikeda DM,
13 patients undergoing ultrasonically guided breast abscess aspirationCase seriesClinical course8 abscesses resolved completely after aspiration. 5 were referred for surgical managementNo control Very small study
Imperiale A et al,
26 patients with 28 abscesses undergoing ultrasound guided fine needle aspiration and antibiotic injectionCase seriesClinical course (serial ultrasonography)27 abscesses resolved over 7 weeks. One required surgical drainageNo control Small study
Leborgne F and Leborgne F,
73 patients with breast abscesses undergoing sonographically guided aspiration and antibiotic instillationCase seriesClinical course38 cases cured after a single aspiration, 18 cured after 2 aspirations and 8 cured after multiple aspirations. Surgical rescue required in 3 cases and 6 patients refused a second aspirationNo control


There are no good studies to answer the question. Most of the studies involved small numbers and are uncontrolled descriptions of case series. In these series the smaller the abscess the better is the outcome and lower is the recurrence rate. Needle aspiration may be more effective when combined with antibiotics – but again there are no controlled studies to allow us to conclude this definitely. A randomised controlled trial is needed.

Clinical Bottom Line

Needle aspiration may be an effective first treatment in small breast abscesses.

Level of Evidence

Level 3 - Small numbers of small studies or great heterogeneity or very different population.


  1. Tan SM, Low SC. Non-operative treatment of breast abscesses. Aust NZ J Surg 1998;68(6):423-424.
  2. Schwarz RJ, Shrestha R. Needle aspiration of breast abscesses. Am J Surg 2001;182(2):117-119.
  3. Dixon JM. Outpatient treatment of non-lactational breast abscesses. Br J Surg 1992;79:56-7.
  4. Hook GW, Ikeda DM. Treatment of breast abscesses with US-guided percutaneous needle drainage without indwelling catheter placement. Radiology 1999;213:579-82.
  5. Imperale A, Zandrino F, Calabrese M et al. Abscesses of the breast. US-guided serial percutaneous aspiration and local antibiotic therapy after unsuccessful systemic antibiotics. Acta Radiol 2001;42:161-5.
  6. Leborgne F, Leborgne F. Treatment of breast abscesses with sonographically guided aspiration, irrigation and instillation of antibiotics. Am J Roentgenol 2003;181:1089-91.