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Boils and carbuncles

Boils and carbuncles are red, painful lumps on the skin that are usually caused by a bacterial infection.

The main symptom of a boil is a red, painful, pus-filled lump on your skin. A carbuncle is a dome-shaped cluster of boils.

Boils often get better on their own. Holding a warm face cloth on it can help it heal. If it does not heal, a GP may drain it or give you antibiotics.

Boils and carbuncles are caused by bacteria infecting a hair follicle. They can spread to another part of your body or to another person.

To help reduce your risk of getting a boil or carbuncle, wash your skin regularly with mild antibacterial soap and clean and cover any cuts or grazes.

Read more on the NHS website.

The main symptom of a boil is a red, painful, pus-filled lump on your skin. A carbuncle is a dome-shaped cluster of boils.

Symptoms of boils and carbuncles

Boils

Picture of a boil.

Boils can develop anywhere on your skin, but you're most likely to get 1 in an area where there's a combination of hair, sweat and friction, such as the neck, face or thighs.

Over time, pus forms inside the boil, making it bigger and more painful.

Most boils eventually burst and the pus drains away without leaving a scar.

This can take from 2 days to 3 weeks to happen.

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a boil and a spot, but boils tend to grow bigger and become more painful.

A GP should be able to diagnose a boil from its appearance.

Carbuncles

A large carbuncle on a person's neck.

A carbuncle is a dome-shaped cluster of boils that usually develops over a few days.

The areas most commonly affected are the back, thighs, or back of the neck.

A carbuncle can grow to a size of 3 to 10cm and will leak pus from a number of points.

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Carbuncles are less common than boils and tend to mostly affect middle-aged or older men in poor health or with a weakened immune system.

Read more on the NHS website.

Boils often get better on their own. Holding a warm face cloth on it can help it heal. If it does not heal, a GP may drain it or give you antibiotics.

Self-care

Most boils get better without the need for medical treatment.

One of the best ways to speed up healing is to apply a warm, moist face cloth to the boil for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day.

The heat increases the amount of blood circulating around the boil, which sends more infection-fighting white blood cells to the area.

When the boil bursts, cover it with sterile gauze or a dressing to prevent the spread of infection.

Afterwards, wash your hands thoroughly using hot water and soap.

Never squeeze or pierce a boil as it could spread the infection.

You can use over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to help relieve any pain caused by the boil.

Medical treatments

Draining boils

If your boil does not heal, a GP may decide to drain it, or refer you to hospital to have this done.

They'll usually numb the area first and then use a sterile needle or scalpel to pierce the boil.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are usually recommended:

  • for all cases of carbuncles
  • if you have a high temperature
  • if you develop a secondary infection, such as cellulitis (infection of the deeper layers of the skin)
  • if you have a boil on your face – facial boils have a higher risk of causing complications
  • if you're in severe pain and discomfort

It's very important to finish the course of antibiotics even if the boil goes away, otherwise the infection could return.

Treating recurrent boils and carbuncles

You're likely to need further treatment if you keep getting boils or carbuncles.

Most people who keep getting boils are carriers of Staphylococcus aureus (staph bacteria). 

This means they have staph bacteria living on their skin or inside their nose.

Treatment will depend on where the bacteria are found on your body.

An antiseptic soap can be used to kill the bacteria on the skin.

Bacteria in the nose will need to be treated with a prescribed antiseptic cream for up to 10 days.

Read more on the NHS website.

To help reduce your risk of getting a boil or carbuncle, wash your skin regularly with mild antibacterial soap and clean and cover any cuts or grazes.

Read more on the NHS website.

Boils and carbuncles are caused by bacteria infecting a hair follicle. They can spread to another part of your body or to another person.

Read more on the NHS website.