Boils

Information on skin boils, carbuncles and abscessess.

Select a Topic

  1. What are the Symptoms of Boils?
  2. Where do Boils Appear?
  3. What Causes Boils?
  4. Boils on Babies and Children
  5. Treatments for Boils
  6. Tips for How to Deal with Boils

What are Boils?

Bacterial infections, or the inflammation of one or more hair follicles, can result in the formation of a boil. They are usually painful and can be quite distressing, especially if they are recurring. A boil generally starts off as an inconspicuous pink and tender bump localized to one area. This soon develops into a firm, hard, inflamed lump that is filled with bacteria-fighting white blood cells and dead skin tissue (pus).

The affected area usually gets larger and more painful until the boil bursts and the pus is able to drain. While some boils disappear within a few days, many can take up to two weeks to heal, which can be very painful and frustrating.

What are the Symptoms of Boils?

What to Expect

Symptoms and appearance of boils may include:

  • Infected hair follicle
  • Boil on skin
  • Painful red skin swelling/lump
  • Local lymph node swelling
  • Pus head appears on the boil

Where do Boils Appear?

Boils can occur anywhere on the skin, although they tend to develop on the face, neck, armpits, buttocks, or thighs. They also occur most frequently in areas containing hair and/or sweat glands, or in areas where chafing or recurrent friction occurs, thus a major cause of skin boils. In some cases, boils can occur in interconnected clusters called carbuncles. In severe cases, they can develop into abscesses.

While anyone can develop boils and carbuncles, people who have diabetes, a suppressed immune system, poor hygiene, acne, or other skin problems are at a higher risk.

Types of Boils

Some examples of boils include: 

  • Furuncle or carbuncle
  • Cystic acne
  • Hidradenitis suppurativa
  • Pilonidal cyst
  • Bartholin's gland

Location of Boils on Body

Boils may be found on various parts of the body, including: 

  • Breasts
  • Legs, Knees and Feet
  • Face and/or Chin
  • Anal, anus, and overall rectal area
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Scalp
  • Pubic, Anorectal and/or groin area
  • Hands and Palms
  • Abdominal area
  • Armpit and underarm area
  • Buttocks and upper thighs
  • Gums, tonsils, throat, other parts of the mouth
  • Vagina and labia
  • Penis and scrotum

What Causes Boils?

The main cause of skin boils is generally due to an infection of a hair follicle. This can occur for a number of different reasons.

Contributing Causes of Boils

  • Chafing clothes
  • Malnutrition (Vitamin A or E deficiency in particular)
  • Menstrual Cycle
  • Blocked sweat glands that become infected
  • Stress
  • Immune Problems & Disorders
  • Diabetes & Insulin Resistance
  • Autoimmune Disorders
  • Being Overweight
  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
  • Tooth Decay
  • An ingrown hair
  • A splinter or other piece of foreign material that has penetrated the skin
  • Poor hygiene

Diagnosing Boils

Most boils can be adequately treated at home, and usually run their course and heal without medical attention. However, in some cases, you may need to visit a general health practitioner to avoid complications. Your doctor will simply examine the affected area to confirm diagnosis and generally no other diagnostic tests are necessary. Skin boil treatment is generally simple and can be managed at home.

Tests to Diagnose Boils
  • Fever
  • The boil occurs between the buttocks (known as a pilonidal cyst)
  • The boil is very painful and not improving
  • The boil worsens rapidly
  • You have frequent boils
  • There are red lines radiating from the boil which suggests that the infection may have entered the blood stream
  • You have an underlying condition resulting in immune deficiency

Boils on Babies and Children

For many babies, boils occur when their diaper rash becomes infected. You will be able to tell the difference between the diaper rash itself and a developing boil by the progression of a lump filled with white or yellow pus, which may or may not burst.

Older children usually develop boils from an infected hair or a cut. Though boils are treatable, for both babies and children boils can be very painful. A reason to become concerned is if your child develops a temperature, red streaks are coming from the lump, or your child has been diagnosed with an immune deficiency, which impedes proper healing.

Treatments for Boils

There are a number of treatment and prevention options for boils ranging from old-home remedies passed down over the generations to medical interventions and surgery.
The one important thing to remember is that boils are most commonly related to low immune system functioning. By boosting the immune system, you’ll be able to prevent boils and recurrent infections.  

Treatment for Boils

Home Treatment
Skin boil treatment administered by self-care is usually the only treatment needed, as these boils generally heal by themselves within 4 to 10 days. Healing can be expedited by applying a warm cloth to the area or soaking the boil in warm water. This should help to relieve some of the pain and encourage the pus to surface. Once the boil has drained, the area should be washed with antibacterial soap and kept bandaged and sterile, as the open wound may be susceptible to further infection. Special care should also be taken to prevent the spreading of the bacteria, which can be transmitted to other areas of the skin or to other people through the pus. You should not squeeze or attempt to pop a boil if it is hard and firm, as boils should only be drained once they have become soft or once a head has formed. It is recommended to leave the boil to burst on its own to reduce the spread of infection to other areas. 

Medical treatment
If the boil requires some medical intervention, your doctor may drain it by making a small incision on the tip of the boil. This will help speed up the recovery, reduce pressure and pain, and it helps to lessen scarring. If the infection is especially deep, a small amount of gauze can be placed over the boil so that it can continue to drain. In addition, a course of oral or topical antibiotics may be prescribed to help rid you of severe or recurrent infections. If boils are a recurrent problem, your doctor may also suggest vitamin supplements (especially vitamin A and E) and tests may be done to determine if you have an underlying condition that may be compromising your immune system.

Surgery
Surgery is one of the last measures taken to prevent recurrent boils. This may include the surgical removal of the sweat glands in the area of the skin that is frequently infected. Surgery is also sometimes necessary when trying to treat pilonidal cysts.

 

Tips for How to Deal with Boils

Self-Care Prevention Measures

There are a number of simple ways to prevent boils from reoccurring:

  • Practice good hygiene and wash skin with soap regularly
  • Avoid very tight or chafing clothing that irritates the skin
  • Clean cuts and scrapes thoroughly
  • Keep the immune system functioning well with a healthy diet and sufficient exercise