What Is a Boil?
A boil is a red, painful lump that develops when bacteria enter the skin. Technically, it’s a type of skin abscess. Boils can sometimes appear in a cluster and connect together under the skin to form a carbuncle, which is a more serious infection. While small boils often can be treated at home, carbuncles and more severe boils should be evaluated and treated by a doctor.
What Causes Boils?
Boils form when bacteria, usually staphylococcus aureus, cause an infection, typically in or near one or more hair follicles or oil glands. Boils can appear anywhere on the body but are most commonly found on the face, back of the neck, armpits, thighs and buttocks — areas with hair that are prone to sweating and/or friction.
While anyone can get boils, certain people are more vulnerable to them, including:
- Anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has a boil
- People with certain skin conditions, including acne and eczema
- People who work with chemicals; these damage the skin barrier and make it easier for bacteria to infiltrate
- People with diabetes, who are less able to fight infection
- Anyone with a condition that compromises the immune system, such as HIV
- People who take medications that suppress the immune system
- People with poor hygiene or nutrition.
Symptoms of Boils
At first, boils are small, typically less than an inch. They are red and feel hard to the touch. In four to seven days, they begin to grow larger as they fill with pus, becoming more tender and painful. The pus causes the boil to develop a yellowish-white tip, which will eventually rupture.
If the infection is severe, you may experience additional symptoms, such as a fever, swollen lymph nodes and new boils surrounding the original one. The infection may also spread to the skin around the boil, causing it to become red, swollen and tender.
If your boil is small, you can treat it yourself by applying a warm, wet washcloth several times a day. Leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. This helps draw pus to the surface so the boil will burst, a process that typically occurs within 10 days.
Once the boil bursts, wash the area with soap, apply antibacterial ointment and cover the skin with a bandage. Repeat this process two to three times a day, and continue to use warm compresses until the area has healed.
Whatever you do, resist the urge to pop the boil yourself by squeezing or puncturing it. Doing so can spread the infection or make it worse.
Some boils need to be treated by a doctor. Carbuncles always require medical attention because they involve a deeper, more severe infection and may scar. You should also see your doctor right away if your boil:
• Worsens quickly and is extremely painful
• Causes a fever
• Disturbs your vision
• Gets larger despite the home treatment described above
• Persists for longer than two weeks
The doctor will likely drain the boil and may prescribe antibiotics. Also see a doctor if you have recurrent boils.