Don’t pick zits: getting treatment for an abscess in India

You really shouldn’t pick zits – but if you do, and it gets infected, and you’re in India – this is what to do.

There is a reason we are told not to pick our spots. This is thought to be something to do with scarring. But, faced with a revolting puss-filled bulb on our faces, most of us opt for short-term relief and squeeze away. The consequence few of us consider, though, is infection; especially if you are from the UK where the tap water is clean and the climate cold enough to kill all but the most determined bacteria.

Certainly I didn’t think anything of squeezing a particularly fierce spot before I hopped on a plane to India. However, almost immediately after arriving in Kochi the fairly modest zit on my jaw began growing – and at an exponential rate. By the time I reached the Sivananda Ashram in Neyarr Dam four days later, I was drawing horrified gasps from concerned onlookers.

What I was now toting on my face was a fully-fledged abscess. On the advice of Ashram staff and community members – all of whom instructed me not to ‘f**k around’ with this and get straight to a ‘real’ doctor (the on-site Ayurvedic healer being ill-equipped with antiseptic anything), I headed to the PRS Hospital in Trivandrum, the nearest town.

Now, I am unlucky/careless enough to have visited many a hospital in the developing world – South Africa for a sprained ankle, Goa for a motorcycle accident, Thailand for a smear test, Cambodia for something else and Myanmar for a friend with a very dangerous tropical disease. What I have learnt through each experience is this: healthcare in the developing world is accessible, efficient, reliable and unbelievably cheap.

In most developing countries, if you require a doctor you simply go to the hospital the locals recommend, get treated and – for most run-of-the mill ailments – the bill doesn’t even graze the excess required on your well researched and almost entirely useless travel insurance certificate. This is even more the case if – like I did in Goa – you find yourself in a government hospital where the floors may be a little less clean, but where they will patch you up in no time for bus fare.

Such was the case at PRS Hospital in Trivandrum – a modern, well-organised and breathtakingly efficient institution. Upon arriving I was ushered by infinitely helpful staff to the registration desk, where I presented my passport for photocopy, filled in a form, was given a very smart laminated membership card and paid £0.55p to see Dr N. Jasmine in dermatology, who prescribed me a course of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and a topical cream.

The entire process took less than 30 minutes and registration, consultation and drugs cost 750 rupees, or £8.33.

Sadly, my case was rather advanced. Over the proceeding five days the lump grew to – literally ­– bursting point. And so at the end of the amoxicillin course I returned to Dr Jasmine – hope for a non-violent solution to this problem shattered – to have it cut out.

Despite the praises sung above, though, I was nervous; memories of a somewhat heavy-handed approach to my RTA wounds at Panjim’s government hospital came flooding back. Nonetheless, I lay on the bed in the doctor’s office ready to endure – at this point I would have settled for a switchblade disinfected in whisky just to get this thing out.

I needn’t have been worried, though. The good doctor wrote me a prescription for the instruments and materials she needed, which I was sent to the surgical pharmacy to buy and fetch back (a slight oddity for me, but ensured sterility, I thought) and included a needle and local anaesthetic. I barely felt the prick as it numbed the entire area and again, within thirty minutes the procedure – through which my wonderful nurse Preeta held my hand tightly – was over. This cost a total of 800 rupees (£8.88).

To ensure that I didn’t contract further infection the doctor insisted I returned to the hospital daily to have the wound redressed, which I faithfully did over the next three days and during which I developed a sort of photo based correspondence with Preeta’s husband and daughter. I am not being hyperbolic when I say I was genuinely sad to be discharged.


In the past five days since I have been faithfully dressing and redressing using Dettol and – thanks to the advice of the organic health restaurant and pharmacy I visited in the city – Pathayam – a turmeric paste; disinfecting first, then applying the mix of turmeric and water and bandaging up. I am pleased to report that I am now sporting a glorious dry scab as the erstwhile gaping hole in my face closes up.

So, key takeaway’s:

  1. Don’t pick zits.
  2. Don’t hesitate to go to a hospital in a developing country, especially India. They are clean, well run and efficient and affordable*.
  3. Unless you are hospitalised for malaria or require airlifting off a mountain (even then read the small print), be aware that almost all routine issues will not even meet the excess required for a pay-out on most travel insurance policies – even the most expensive ones. Decide on whether and which to take accordingly**.

I want to caveat this by saying I am aware that for many – including a vast swathe of the poorest Indians – this is not true. I hope the government of India and all developing countries work harder to make it so.

**If something truly dreadful happens to you and need extensive hospital care I say again: travel insurance will save you money. I only report my experience – in which it has not.

Author: Rebecca E Jones

Journalist, nomad, cultural magpie. An inveterate Londoner, in 2016 I embarked on a year of travel through South Africa, India and South East Asia that changed the way I see the world and its inhabitants - especially myself. Here I share what I learned - and continue to learn - through my journey.

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