Carbuncles and boils are pus filled bumps, which develop under the skin and can be quite painful. The cause of this is bacterial infection or inflammation of one or multiple hair follicles.

Boils and Carbuncles

Boils, also known as furuncles, commonly develop as tender, red lumps which later fill up with pus and grow large and painful till they ultimately rupture and drain. 

A carbuncle is nothing but a collection or group of boils which form an interconnected area of infection beneath the skin.

Never squeeze or pick at the boil, as the infection can spread to other regions of the body. If the boil or carbuncle is very painful and persists for more than two weeks or is accompanied by fever, then medical attention needs to be sought. Treatment comprises of incision and drainage along with antibiotics.

Causes of Boils and Carbuncles

Staphylococcus aureus is the primary causative bacteria for boils. Boils tend to develop at regions of broken skin from an insect bite or injury giving easy access to bacteria and thus formation of boils and carbuncles.

Risk Factors for Boils and Carbuncles 

  • Close physical contact with individuals who have a staph infection increases the risk for contracting infection and developing boil or carbuncle.
  • Having other skin conditions, such as eczema, acne etc. that damage the skin's protective barrier and thus increase the chances of having boils and carbuncles.
  • Other medical conditions, such as diabetes, make the body more vulnerable to any type of infections.
  • Individuals with weak immune system are more susceptible to having boils and carbuncles.

Signs and Symptoms of Boils

Boils commonly appear on face, armpits, neck, thighs or buttocks; any region where hair growth and sweating is more or where friction is more; however, they can develop anywhere. The following signs and symptoms are observed with a boil:

  • A red, painful pea-sized bump is seen.
  • The skin surrounding the bump is red and swollen.
  • The size of the bump increases over the next few days and fills with pus. 
  • The bump can also increase to the size of a baseball.
  • The boil develops a yellow-white tip, which ultimately ruptures with the pus draining out.

Signs and Symptoms of Carbuncles

A carbuncle is a group of boils which together form an area of infection. Carbuncles commonly occur on the back side of the neck, thighs or shoulders. The infection of the carbuncles is more severe and deep when compared to infection of a single boil. Also infection of the carbuncles is more likely to leave behind a scar. People having a carbuncle don't feel well overall and may also have fever and chills.

  • If you have multiple boils, you should see your doctor immediately. Also, you should seek immediate medical attention if you have the following symptoms:
  • If the boils/carbuncles develop on the face.
  • They become increasingly worse or become more painful.
  • If there is a fever.
  • If the size is greater than 2 inches or 5 cms in diameter.
  • If the infection persists beyond 2 weeks.
  • If you have recurrent boils or carbuncles.

Investigations for Boils and Carbuncles 

Physical examination is sufficient for diagnosis. If the infection is not responding to treatment or if the patient is having recurrent infections; then a pus sample is taken for testing to find out the causative bacteria and to determine the best antibiotic for treating it.

Treatment for Boils and Carbuncles

Small boils or mild infection of boils can be treated at home using conservative measures, such as application of warm compresses to alleviate pain and to stimulate natural drainage.

Treatment for boils which are larger in size and carbuncles includes:

  • Incision and drainage (I and D) is done by making a small incision on the apex to drain a large boil or carbuncle. If the infection is deep and cannot be drained completely, then it is packed with sterile gauze, which will help in soaking and in removing the remaining pus.
  • Antibiotics are prescribed for severe/ recurrent boils and carbuncle infections.

Home Remedies and Prevention of Boils and Carbuncles

  • Application of warm compresses helps in rupturing and drainage of the boils.
  • Avoid squeezing or pricking a boil at home, as it can cause the infection to spread further.
  • Always wash your hands before and after administering a boil to prevent contamination. 
  • Always wash any compresses, towels, or clothing which has been used at the infected area to avoid spreading and recurrence of infection.
  • Alternative medicines, such as tea tree oil, extracted from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia (Australian tea tree) has antibiotic, antiseptic and antifungal properties and is helpful in treating boils by applying it topically.  If you are having any allergic reaction to Tea tree oil, then discontinue its use immediately.
  • Always clean and cover any wounds, cuts, abrasions etc. till they have achieved complete healing to avoid any staph infection.
  • Don't share personal items like sheets, towels, razors, clothing etc. to avoid contamination.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: May 8, 2014

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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