What is a boil? A boil is a skin abscess that forms deep inside a hair follicle or oil gland. A boil is caused by a bacterial skin infection. A boil generally starts as a reddened, tender area. Over time, the area becomes firm and hard.
The infection damages your skin cells, hollowing the tissue out. Your immune system responds with white blood cells, which fill the center of the infection and make it soft. Your body makes these cells to destroy the infection.
Together with bacteria and proteins, these white blood cells are known as pus. This pus may eventually form a central head near the surface of your skin. This head may drain on its own, spilling out of the surface of your skin. If not, it can be surgically opened.
A boil starts as a hard, red, painful, pea-sized lump. It is usually less than an inch big. Over the next few days, the lump becomes softer, larger, and more painful. Soon, a pocket of pus forms on the top of the boil.
Here are some symptoms related to a severe boil infection:
- the skin around the boil becomes red, painful, and swollen;
- several boils may cluster around the original one (a carbuncle);
- a fever develops;
- the lymph nodes in the area become swollen
The most common places for boils to appear are on your:
When a boil occurs on your eyelid, it is called a sty (stye).
Boils are caused by bacteria, and usually the infectious bacterium is Staphylococcus aureus. Many staph infections develop into abscesses and can become serious very quickly. One big concern is that S. aureus is the same strain that causes MRSA infections (methicillin-resistant S. aureus).
This germ can be present on normal skin and enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin or by traveling down a hair to the follicle. Some boils can be caused by an ingrown hair. Others can form as the result of a splinter or other foreign material that has become lodged in the skin that causes the infection to develop.
Your skin is an essential part of your immune defense against materials and microbes that are foreign to your body. Any break in your skin, such as a cut or scrape, can develop into an abscess (boil). Consequently, not all boils originate in hair follicles.
Folliculitis is an inflammation or infection of the hair follicles. This condition can develop into a boil and appears as numerous small red or pink little bumps at the hair follicles.
Infection of the hair follicles can occur when the skin is disrupted or inflamed due to a number of conditions, including acne, skin wounds or injuries, friction from clothing, excessive sweating, or exposure to toxins.
Boils themselves are not contagious, but S. aureus is. Until it drains and heals, an active skin boil can spread staph infection. The infection can spread to other parts of the person's body or to other people through skin-to-skin contact or the sharing of personal items, such as towels or washcloths.
There are several different types of boils. Another name for a boil is "furuncle." Among these are
- hidradenitis suppurativa (seen in the armpit or groin)
- pilonidal cyst (area on the back where the buttocks merge)
- cystic acne
- sty (stye)
A carbuncle is an abscess in the skin caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. It usually involves a group of hair follicles and is therefore larger than a typical furuncle, or boil. A carbuncle can have one or more openings onto the skin and may be associated with fever or chills.
Carbuncles are considered more serious skin conditions. When you have multiple carbuncles, the condition is known as carbunculosis. This skin condition may not respond to home remedies, and is more likely to need expert treatment from a health care professional.
Cystic acne is a type of abscess that is formed when oil ducts become clogged and inflamed. Cystic acne affects deeper skin tissue than the more superficial inflammation from common acne. Cystic acne is most common on the face and typically occurs in the teenage years.
Hidradenitis suppurativa is a condition in which there are multiple abscesses that form under the armpits and often in the groin area. These areas are a result of local inflammation of the hair follicles. This form of skin inflammation is difficult to treat with antibiotics alone and typically requires a surgical procedure to remove the involved hair follicles in order to stop the skin inflammation.
A pilonidal cyst is a unique kind of abscess that occurs in or above the crease of the buttocks. Pilonidal cysts often begin as tiny areas of inflammation in the base of the area of skin from which hair grows (the hair follicle). With irritation from direct pressure, over time, the inflamed area enlarges to become a firm, painful, tender nodule making it difficult to sit without discomfort. These cysts frequently form after long trips that involve prolonged sitting.
A sty (also spelled stye) is a tender, painful red bump located at the base of an eyelash or under or inside the eyelid. A sty results from a localized inflammation of the glands or a hair follicle of the eyelid. A sty is sometimes confused with a chalazion, a lump on the inner portion of the upper or lower eyelid, but a chalazion is usually painless and caused by obstruction and inflammation of an oil gland, not an infection.
Anyone can develop a boil. However, people with certain illnesses or medications that impair the body's immune system are more likely to develop boils. Among the illnesses that can be associated with impaired immune systems are diabetes and kidney failure. Diseases, such as hypogammaglobulinemia, that are associated with deficiencies in the normal immune system, can increase the tendency to develop boils. Many medications can suppress the normal immune system and increase the risk of developing boils. These medications include cortisone medications (prednisone and prednisolone) and medications used for cancer chemotherapy.
Most simple boils can be treated at home. Ideally, the treatment should begin as soon as a boil is noticed since early treatment may prevent later complications. The primary treatment for most boils is heat application, usually with hot soaks or hot packs. Heat application increases the circulation to the area and allows the body to better fight off the infection by bringing antibodies and white blood cells to the site of infection. Do not pop the boil with a needle. This usually results in making the infection worse.
As long as the boil is small and firm, opening the area and draining the boil is not helpful, even if the area is painful. However, once the boil becomes soft or "forms a head" (that is, a small pustule is noted in the boil), it can be ready to drain. Once drained, pain relief can be dramatic. Most small boils, such as those that form around hairs, drain on their own with soaking and/or heat application. On occasion, and especially with larger boils, the larger boil will need to be drained or "lanced" by a health-care practitioner. Frequently, these larger boils contain several pockets of pus that must be opened and drained.
Once boils appear once, they may return. About 10% of people who develop a boil will develop another one within a year. Some people suffer from recurring boils (“recurrent furunculosis”). Home remedies and over-the-counter medicines may not be enough for this skin problem. Prescription antibiotics may be used to eliminate the responsible staph bacteria.
Especially if the skin surrounding your boil is infected, your doctor will often prescribe antibiotics. However, antibiotics are not always helpful.
Antibiotics have difficulty penetrating the outer wall of a boil. They often will not cure a boil without additional surgical drainage. In most cases, incising and draining the boil is sufficient to cure the infection. Your doctor should discuss the use or non-use of antibiotics for your condition.
You should call your doctor and seek medical attention if:
- the boil is located on your face, near your spine, or near your anus;
- a boil is getting larger;
- the pain is severe;
- you have a fever;
- the skin around the boil turns red or red streaks appear;
- you have a heart murmur, diabetes, any problem with your immune system, or use immune-suppressing drugs (for example, corticosteroids or chemotherapy) and you develop a boil;
- the boil has not improved after five to seven days of home treatment;
- you get many boils over several months.
Good hygiene and the regular use of antibacterial soaps can help to prevent bacteria from building up on the skin. This can reduce the chance for hair follicles to become infected and prevent the formation of boils. Your health-care practitioner may recommend special cleansers such as Hibiclens to further reduce the bacteria on the skin.
Pilonidal cysts can be prevented by avoiding continuous direct pressure or irritation of the buttock area when a local hair follicle becomes inflamed. Regular soap and hot water cleaning and drying can be helpful. For acne and hidradenitis suppurativa, antibiotics are used and anti-inflammatory agents like corticosteroids may be required on a long-term basis to prevent recurrent abscess formation.
Finally, surgery may occasionally be needed, especially for hidradenitis suppurativa or pilonidal cysts that recur. For pilonidal cysts, surgically removing the outer shell of the cyst is important to clear the boil. For hidradenitis suppurativa, extensive involvement can require plastic surgery.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
- Peggy Firth and Susan Gilbert for WebMD
Image courtesy of Zen Sutherland
- El Pantera - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15546100
- John F. Wilson, MD.
- Image reprinted courtesy of eMedicine, 2008
- Image courtesy of Andre Riemann – Wikimedia Commons
- Image courtesy of Mahdouch – Wikipedia
- British Journal of General Practice: “Incidence and recurrence of boils and abscesses within the first year: A cohort study in UK primary care.”
- Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology: “Recurrent furunculosis—Challenges and management: A review.”
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care: “Boils and carbuncles: Overview.”
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Most boils are caused by Staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacterium commonly found on the skin and inside the nose. A bump forms as pus collects under the skin. Boils sometimes develop at sites where the skin has been broken by a small injury or an insect bite, which gives the bacteria easy entry.What is the best treatment for boils? ›
You can generally treat small boils at home by applying warm compresses to relieve pain and promote natural drainage. For larger boils and carbuncles, treatment may include: Incision and drainage. Your doctor may drain a large boil or carbuncle by making an incision in it.What causes boils and how do you treat them? ›
These painful skin abscesses result from bacteria infecting a hair follicle. They commonly occur on the face, neck, armpits, buttocks, and thighs, but can appear anywhere on your body. Many boils get better with at-home treatments such as warm compresses. Larger boils may require treatment by a healthcare professional.What does a boil look like and how do you treat it? ›
A boil is a common, painful infection of a hair follicle and the surrounding skin. It begins as a red lump, then fills with pus as white blood cells rush in to fight the infection. Good home care can often clear up a single boil, also known as a skin abscess.What is the body lacking when you get boils? ›
Zinc is an important mineral for boosting immunity and is essential in the treatment of boils. Along with zinc, foods containing vitamin A (fish and dairy products), vitamin C (fruits and vegetables) and vitamin E (nuts and seeds) are helpful in strengthening the immune system.Are boils a form of STD? ›
Boils are not typically sexually transmitted. However, if you come in close contact with someone who has a boil that is leaking, you should wash with antibacterial soap as soon as possible. You should encourage that person to keep the boil covered. The pus inside of a boil commonly carries contagious bacteria.What ointment kills boils? ›
Apply a topical antiseptic such as povidone iodine or chlorhexidine cream to the boils and cover with a square of gauze. Your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic (usually the penicillin antibiotic flucloxacillin), sometimes for several weeks.What is the fastest way to get rid of a boil? ›
The first thing you should do to help get rid of boils is apply a warm compress. Soak a washcloth in warm water and then press it gently against the boil for about 10 minutes. You can repeat this several times throughout the day. Just like with a warm compress, using a heating pad can help the boil start to drain.What ointment to put on boils? ›
Neem oil. Neem oil may have antiseptic, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties that can help treat skin infections, including boils. It's also known as Indian lilac. To treat boils with neem oil, apply the oil directly to the boil three to four times a day.Can boils be left untreated? ›
Many boils drain of their own accord, or they can be lanced by a health care professional. Antibiotics may also be prescribed. Untreated boils can enlarge or grow together to form a giant multi-headed boil (carbuncle). Rarely, the infection in the skin can get into the bloodstream, leading to serious illness.
Put warm, moist, compresses on the boil several times a day to speed draining and healing. Never squeeze a boil or try to cut it open at home. This can spread the infection. Continue to put warm, wet, compresses on the area after the boil opens.Is Neosporin good for boils? ›
There are no OTC antibiotics appropriate for treating a boil. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, using OTC antibiotic ointment — such as Neosporin, bacitracin, or Polysporin — on your boil is ineffective because the medication won't penetrate the infected skin.How long should a boil last? ›
Boils may take from 1 to 3 weeks to heal. In most cases, a boil will not heal until it opens and drains. This can take up to a week. A carbuncle often requires treatment by your healthcare provider.Are boils signs of infection? ›
A boil is an infection of a hair follicle, caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Boils usually resolve by themselves, but severe or recurring cases require medical attention. Medical treatment may include antibiotics and lancing.What happens if you pop a boil? ›
Popping or squeezing a boil can allow bacteria to infect deeper layers of the skin, as well as other tissues and organs. This can lead to serious, life-threatening complications. Boils can heal on their own without medical treatment.What disease causes recurring boils? ›
Hidradenitis suppurativa, also known as acne inversa, is a chronic skin disease characterized by recurrent boil-like lumps (nodules) under the skin.Is there a disease that causes boils? ›
The symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa range from mild to severe. It causes a mixture of boil-like lumps, blackheads, cysts, scarring and channels in the skin that leak pus. The condition tends to start with a firm pea-sized lump that develops in one place.How do you get rid of a boil overnight? ›
There's no way to completely get rid of a boil overnight. However, warm compresses, application of antibiotic cream, or use of creams made of natural remedies may help to lessen its severity and provide temporary relief to pain as it heals.When should you go to the doctor for a boil? ›
See a GP if:
you have a boil on your face. you have a boil and a long-term condition such as diabetes. the skin around your boil feels hot and painful. you've had a boil for 2 weeks and the things you've tried are not helping.
It is possible for boils to spread to another person if bacteria from the initially infected person contact the skin of another person who is susceptible to the infecting bacteria. However, a boil can spread in the skin of an infected individual to become an abscess or develop into a clump of boils (carbuncle).
If you develop a boil, you may be tempted to pop it or lance it (open with a sharp instrument) at home. Do not do this. Popping a boil may spread infection and make the boil worse. Your boil may contain bacteria that could be dangerous if not properly treated.Does hydrogen peroxide help heal boils? ›
Clean It. Audrey Kunin, MD, recommends keeping a boil clean to guard against spreading the infection. Wipe it with hydrogen peroxide or apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment such as Polysporin or Neosporin as insurance.How does stress cause boils? ›
Have you ever noticed that you break out more when you're stressed? This is because stress causes your body to make hormones like cortisol, which tells glands in your skin to make more oil. Oily skin is more prone to acne and other skin problems.Should you put a bandaid on a boil? ›
Keep using heat for 3 days after the boil opens. Put a bandage on it so the drainage does not spread. Change the bandage every day. If the boil is draining on its own, let it drain.Why are boils so painful? ›
When bacteria infect a hair follicle or an oil gland, a red, painful, pus-filled bump can form under the skin. This is known as a boil. A boil is usually very painful because of the pressure that develops as it grows bigger.Does Neosporin draw out infection? ›
This product contains neomycin, bacitracin, and polymyxin, antibiotics that work by stopping the growth of bacteria. This medication prevents/treats only bacterial skin infections. It will not work for other types of skin infections (such as infections caused by fungi, viruses).How can you tell if a boil is MRSA? ›
MRSA and other staph skin infections often appear as a bump or infected area on the skin that may be: > Red > Swollen or painful > Warm to the touch > Full of pus or other drainage It is especially important to contact your healthcare professional when MRSA skin infection signs and symptoms are accompanied by a fever.Can I squeeze the pus out of a boil? ›
When the boil bursts, cover it with sterile gauze or a dressing. This is to prevent the spread of infection. Afterwards, wash your hands thoroughly using hot water and soap. Never squeeze or pierce a boil because it could spread the infection.Are boils caused by poor hygiene? ›
Risk factors for boils
Poor hygiene – sweat and dead skin cells in natural creases and crevices, such as the armpit, provide a hospitable home for bacteria. Nutrition – inadequate nutrition may reduce a person's natural immunity. Broken skin – other skin conditions, such as eczema, can break the skin surface.
No direct connection exists between mineral or vitamin deficiency and the formation of boils; however, having an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals does keep your vital body functions in general good working order, promoting a stronger immune system to fight bacterial infections.
If you get lots of boils that keep coming or don't go away then you may need some tests to check if there is any underlying cause. Hidradenitis suppurativa is a long-term (chronic) skin condition, leading to painful and repeated lumps of pus (boils or abscesses).What diseases cause skin boils? ›
Hidradenitis suppurativa, also known as acne inversa, is a chronic skin disease characterized by recurrent boil-like lumps (nodules) under the skin. The nodules become inflamed and painful. They tend to break open (rupture), causing abscesses that drain fluid and pus.When should I be worried about a boil? ›
See a GP if:
you have a boil on your face. you have a boil and a long-term condition such as diabetes. the skin around your boil feels hot and painful.
Warm compresses, antibiotic cream like Neosporin, and Epsom salt soaks can work quickly to provide relief from boils. Use a warm compress for 20 minutes, up to 3-4 times per day. Overnight, apply Neosporin cream to help address the bacteria and clear up the infection.Does eating too much sugar cause boils? ›
Diabetes doesn't cause boils or other skin conditions, but high blood sugar can damage blood vessels. This may make you more susceptible to infections, including those affecting the skin.Is there a blood disorder that causes boils? ›
Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) is a chronic skin disease which causes painful, boil-like lumps that form under the skin and often secrete pus and blood. HS occurs most often in areas where skin rubs together, such as the armpits, groin, and under the breasts.Can boils be life threatening? ›
If left untreated, severe boils or carbuncles can lead to life-threatening conditions. These may include systemic infections, which can compromise the bloodstream or the entire body. Talk with a doctor about boils that do not heal on their own, are very large, or are complicated by additional symptoms or conditions.Are boils contagious? ›
How are they spread? Boils and other skin infections are spread between people by: direct contact with an infected area or spread of the bacteria on hands or items that have been in contact with an infected area.How long do boils last? ›
Boils may take from 1 to 3 weeks to heal. In most cases, a boil will not heal until it opens and drains. This can take up to a week. A carbuncle often requires treatment by your healthcare provider.