What Is a Boil and How Do I Handle It?

Person having a boil examined What Is a Boil and How Do I Handle It?

Most of us know about boils from biblical texts and folk tales involving witches and warlocks. These lumps and bumps are more than the stuff of legend, though -- they’re very real. In fact, boils are among the most common skin conditions, affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans each year (and many more worldwide). Regardless of your personal history with boils, there’s a fair chance you might encounter one in the future. As such, it helps to know a thing or two about boils, how to treat them, and how to prevent them.

How to Identify and Treat Boils

What Are Boils?

A boil is a type of bacterial skin infection that takes root in a hair follicle or sebaceous (oil) gland. When the bacteria has made its way into the follicle or gland, the skin will respond by turning red at the infection site, gradually forming a small lump. Over the course of 4-7 days, this lump may grow (boils vary in size) due to a buildup of pus underneath the skin. Boils typically show up on one’s face, neck, armpits, shoulders, and buttocks. In some cases, a boil may form on the eyelid (known as a sty) or in a group (i.e., a carbuncle), which usually indicates a more severe infection. It’s sometimes easy to mistake a boil for acne, as both bumps are often round, tender, red, and feature a whitish-yellow node at the tip. However, pimples begin in the pores and consist of dead skin cells, oils, and dirt. It’s important to properly identify the bump in question, as boil and acne treatments are not the same.

What Causes Boils?

Staphylococcal bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus are primarily to blame for the formation of boils. These bacteria typically reside on the skin’s surface, causing no problems or concerns. However, this bacteria can become problematic when it makes its way into your skin’s hair follicle(s). As is the case with most infections, Staphylococcal bacteria most easily find their way into your skin when there’s an open abrasion (i.e., a cut or scrape).

How to Treat Boils

While boils can be irritating, unbecoming, and sometimes painful, they’re usually nothing to worry about. Moreover, most boils go away on their own. That said, there are numerous ways to get rid of your boils quicker and stave off any additional infections or complications. The most basic boil treatment regimen can be performed at home -- simply applying a warm compress to your boil(s) on a regular basis will help drain the pus inside the bump and diminish the boil. Larger, more aggressive boils may require a more direct approach. While you should never poke, cut, or prod your own boils (this can lead to scarring and further infection), a professional doctor or dermatologist can properly drain larger boils via careful incision. Antibiotics are often prescribed after the boil removal/drainage process to treat the infection.

Preventing Boils in the Future

Despite the efficacy of skin boil treatment and removal options, no one wants to end up with boils in the first place. The best way to avoid boils in the future is to keep your skin clean and maintain a healthy lifestyle. You can achieve these things by practicing proper personal hygiene, immediately cleaning, treating, and concealing skin injuries, and regularly washing your clothes, towels, and bedding, especially if you or someone close to you has been recently infected with boils.

What It Boils Down To

Boils are among the many bumps and lumps that may protrude from our skin. Fortunately, the majority of boils don’t last long or point to a serious problem. That said, it’s always a good idea to contact your dermatologist if you’re concerned about a boil or what might appear to be a boil. Likewise, seek immediate medical attention if your boil is accompanied by fever, chills, bodily aches, swollen lymph nodes, severe pain, lack of drainage, additional boils, or unusual visual cues like red streaks on or near the infection. Also, if you have an immune disorder or are taking immunosuppressants and develop a boil, emergency attention is required.


The experts at North Pacific Dermatology are happy to give you more information about boils and help you deal with any skin problems you’re facing. Set up a consultation with our team today.

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