Cysts (Overview)


What Is It?

Cysts are sacs or capsules that form in the skin or inside the body. They may contain fluid or semisolid material. Although cysts can appear anywhere in the body, most frequently they live in the skin, ovaries, breasts or kidneys. Most cysts are not cancerous.

Common locations of cysts include:

  • Skin — Also called sebaceous cysts, they appear as flesh-colored or whitish-yellow lumps underneath the skin. They form inside glands that secrete an oily substance called sebum. When normal gland secretions become trapped, they can develop into a thick, cheeselike substance. Common sites include the back of the neck, the upper back and the scalp.

  • Wrists — Ganglion cysts develop as rubbery or soft swellings, usually in response to a minor injury that triggers excess joint fluid to collect in a saclike structure adjacent to the joint. Ganglion cysts also can occur on the fingers or feet.

  • Knees — A Baker’s cyst is a pouch of joint fluid that collects behind the bend of the knee. Because of its location, this cyst may cause the knee joint to feel swollen or tight. In most people, Baker’s cysts are linked to arthritis or knee injury.

  • Ovaries — An ovarian follicle that doesn’t release its egg may form a cyst on the ovary. These cysts are not harmful and usually disappear after two to three months. Cysts can develop on the ovaries as a result of endometriosis, a condition in which abnormal uterine tissue grows on the ovaries, cervix, bowel or elsewhere inside the abdomen or pelvis.

  • Breasts — Breast cysts usually are fluid-filled, not solid. Most breast lumps are not cancerous, but mammograms and other tests can check for cancer.

  • Vagina — Bartholin’s gland cysts may develop in one of the Bartholin’s glands, which lie just inside the vaginal canal and produce a protective, lubricating fluid. The buildup of secretions or infections inside one of the Bartholin’s glands can cause the gland to swell and form a cyst.

  • Cervix — Nabothian cysts develop when one of the mucous glands of the cervix becomes obstructed. These cysts often are related to childbirth or to age-related thinning of cervical tissue.

  • Kidneys — Solitary cysts (also known as simple cysts) are the most common type. They appear as fluid-filled pouches and usually cause no symptoms. About 25 percent of Americans older than age 50 have this type of cyst. Some people inherit the tendency to develop many kidney cysts, which can lead to kidney failure.


Cysts can cause a wide range of symptoms, depending on the type of cyst and its location. Here are some common symptoms grouped by location:

  • Skin — Typically slow growing and painless, skin cysts are usually small, although some can grow to the size of golf balls. They do not cause pain unless they rupture or become infected. In these cases, there will be redness, swelling and tenderness.

  • Wrists — These cysts can appear suddenly and grow quickly. They usually are about the size of a dime, and may be tender to the touch. In some cases, the cyst may weaken a person’s grip or make it painful.

  • Knees — Baker’s cysts may feel like a hard-boiled egg when the patient bends the knee. The knee joint may feel swollen and tight. If a cyst breaks open, it can cause pain in the back of the knee or down the leg. If a cyst is large enough, it can lead to swelling in the leg and foot.

  • Ovaries — When ovarian cysts rupture, they cause sudden, severe pain in one side of the lower abdomen or upper pelvis. Ovarian cysts are associated with menstrual spotting and irregular menstruation.

  • Breasts — Some cysts do not cause any symptoms. Others are tender to the touch. Cysts may change in size and sensitivity during the course of a menstrual cycle.

  • Vagina — Bartholin’s gland cysts may cause a recurring, tender swelling on either side of the vaginal entrance. Occasionally, pus may drain from this tender lump.

  • Cervix — Nabothian cysts usually have no symptoms.

  • Kidneys — Usually, kidney cysts are only discovered when a radiology test is done for another reason. Cysts can sometimes cause back pain. If they grow large enough they can trigger abdominal pain. Cysts can cause bloody urine. Inherited kidney cysts can lead to kidney failure when numerous cysts develop.


In cases of visible cysts, such as those in the skin and wrists, your doctor will ask you when you first noticed the cyst, how quickly it grew, whether its size changes, and if it is painful. During a physical exam, your doctor will look for redness and tenderness, and will examine the size and shape of a suspected cyst. Often, this visual inspection is all that’s needed.

Depending on the type of cyst, other tests may be necessary:

  • Knees — A Baker’s cyst is not usually visible on standard X-rays, although X-rays can confirm the presence of osteoarthritis, which is associated with these cysts. To confirm the diagnosis, an Ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging is necessary.

  • Ovaries — Ultrasound scans locate the cyst and tell if it is filled with fluid. Depending on the cyst’s characteristics and a person’s age, a repeat ultrasound may be done in a few months to see if the cyst goes away, or further evaluation to rule out cancer may be recommended.

  • Breasts — Your doctor will feel your breast tissue for lumps. Noncancerous cysts tend to have smooth borders and are movable. Your doctor will send you for ultrasound and/or a mammogram to check for fluid in the cyst and look for any suspicious abnormalities before deciding if a biopsy is necessary. A biopsy is the removal of a tissue sample for laboratory testing. If fluid is seen in the cyst, fluid may be removed with a needle to shrink the cyst and sent to the lab for examination.

  • Vagina — During a gynecological exam, your doctor will look for a tender lump, a Bartholin’s gland cyst, near the opening of the vagina. Signs of redness, swelling, tenderness or pus suggest an infection.

  • Cervix — During a gynecological exam, your doctor may see these fluid-filled Nabothian cysts on your cervix.

  • Kidneys — Ultrasounds or computed tomography scans can detect kidney cysts.

Expected Duration

Many cysts, such as wrist or ovarian cysts, appear and go away on their own. Others, such as skin cysts, grow slowly in size and may go away on their own or need to be drained when they produce symptoms or become infected. Cysts in the cervix may disappear after a woman gives birth. Kidney cysts usually do not go away.


There is no guaranteed way to avoid all cysts. However, you can prevent existing cysts from turning into major problems by scheduling regular checkups with your doctor. If you have been treated for breast cysts, you may reduce the risk of them returning by eating healthful, low-fat foods, and by eliminating alcohol and caffeine from your diet.


The need for treatment and the type of treatment depend on the type of cyst, its location and your symptoms. If the cyst does not pose a health threat, you may not need any treatment. In other cases, one of the following treatments may be recommended:

  • Skin — For an infected and swollen cyst, your doctor may recommend draining the cyst and using antibiotics and/or warm compresses applied to the site several times each day. When the cyst is no longer infected, the doctor may remove it surgically. If the cyst is not infected, it does not have to be removed.

  • Wrist — Ganglion cysts may be treated with ice packs applied directly to the affected wrist, together with oral medication for pain, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and other brands). If you don’t like the way the cyst looks, or if you experience pain or weakness in your grip, your doctor can use a needle to remove the fluid from the cyst. The cyst can become bigger again. In some cases, surgery may be done to remove the cyst.

  • Knees — Your doctor can use a needle to remove the fluid in the cyst and/or inject corticosteroid medication into the cyst or knee. The corticosteroid medication helps to reduce inflammation that causes pain and swelling. In some cases, surgery is done to remove the cyst.

  • Ovaries — Some ovarian cysts don’t require treatment; others need to be removed surgically. This depends on whether the cyst looks fluid-filled and is more likely to be noncancerous, on your age, and on whether you have any risk factors for cancer. Cysts that form from follicles tend to disappear in one or two menstrual cycles. A repeat ultrasound may be recommended in a few months to make sure that the cyst has gone away.

  • Breasts — If you have a fluid-filled lump, your doctor may insert a needle into the cyst and remove the fluid. This makes the cyst smaller, and allows the doctor to send a sample of the fluid to the lab for testing. If the lump is not fluid-filled, your doctor will use your age, mammogram, risk factors and character of the lump to decide whether you should have a surgical biopsy of the lump or have it removed.

  • Vagina — Your doctor may tell you to apply warm, wet compresses (such as a warm washcloth) to the area, and to take ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil and other brands) to relieve any pain. If a rash or fever develops, or if there pus drains from the cyst, your doctor may make a small incision in the cyst to allow it to drain, and prescribe antibiotics.

  • Cervix — Usually, Nabothian cysts do not need to be treated.

  • Kidneys — Fluid-filled cysts do not require treatment. If the cyst causes symptoms, your doctor can drain it with a needle or remove it through laparoscopic surgery (surgery through small incisions). If there is any concern about cancer, your doctor can remove fluid from the cysts and send it to a laboratory for testing. For people with an inherited tendency to develop multiple cysts, your doctor may recommend a low-protein diet, as well as frequent checkups to monitor your kidney function. People who develop kidney failure from inherited cysts need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

When To Call A Professional

Make an appointment to see a doctor whenever you notice an abnormal growth or swelling anywhere on your body. If you think you may have an infected skin cyst or a Bartholin’s cyst in your vagina, use warm compresses and acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce inflammation until you can see your doctor. Sometimes, these early steps are enough to treat the problem. If you have diabetes, call your doctor the same day you notice signs of infection because you are at risk of having the infection spread.

If you are a woman, contact your doctor immediately if you experience sharp, sudden pain in your lower abdomen or upper pelvis or you have abdominal pain with a fever. You may have a ruptured ovarian cyst, but it also could be appendicitis. Breast lumps should be evaluated as soon as possible by a doctor.


The prognosis for noncancerous cysts is excellent. Many cysts have no symptoms and go away on their own. Cysts can come back. Draining or surgically removing cysts usually has no complications or side effects.

In rare cases in which a cyst is cancerous, the prognosis will depend on the type of cancer and whether it has spread.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.