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Boils and carbuncles
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Boils and carbuncles

From MayoClinic.com

Diseases & Conditions A-Z

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WOMEN'S HEALTH

Hair/Nails/Skin

Signs and symptoms

A boil usually appears suddenly as a painful pink or red bump about 1/2 inch in diameter. The surrounding skin may also be red and swollen.

Within 24 hours, the bump fills with pus. It grows larger and more painful for 5 to 7 days, sometimes reaching golf-ball size before it develops a yellow-white tip that finally ruptures and drains. Boils generally clear completely in about 2 weeks. Small boils usually heal without scarring, but a large boil may leave a mark.

A carbuncle is a cluster of boils that often occurs on the back of the neck, shoulders or thighs, especially in older men. Carbuncles cause a deeper and more severe infection than a single boil. They also develop and heal more slowly and are likely to leave a scar. Carbuncles sometimes occur with a fever.

Boils and carbuncles often resemble the inflamed, painful lumps caused by cystic acne. But boils tend to occur once or to reappear intermittently, whereas cystic acne is often an ongoing problem.

Causes

Boils usually form when one or more hair follicles — the tube-shaped shafts from which hair grows — become infected with staph bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus). These bacteria, which normally inhabit your skin and sometimes your throat and nasal passages, are responsible for a number of serious diseases, including pneumonia, meningitis, urinary tract infections and endocarditis — an infection of the lining of your heart. They're also a major cause of hospital-acquired infections and foodborne illnesses.

Staph bacteria that cause boils generally enter through a cut, scratch or other break in your skin. As soon as this occurs, specialized white blood cells called neutrophils rush to the site to fight the infection. This leads to inflammation and eventually to the formation of pus — a mixture of old white blood cells, bacteria and dead skin cells.

Risk factors

Although anyone — including otherwise healthy people — can develop boils or carbuncles, the following factors can increase your risk:

  • Poor general health. Having chronic poor health makes it harder for your immune system to fight infections.

  • Diabetes. This disease also makes it more difficult for your body to fight infection. In fact, recurrent boils sometimes may be a symptom of diabetes, especially in people older than 40.

  • Clothing that binds or chafes. The constant irritation from tight clothing can cause breaks in your skin, making it easier for bacteria to enter your body.

  • Other skin conditions. Because they damage your skin's protective barrier, skin problems such as acne and dermatitis make you more susceptible to boils and carbuncles.

  • Immune-suppressing medications. Long-term use of corticosteroids such as prednisone or other drugs that suppress your immune system can increase your risk.

When to seek medical advice

You usually can care for a single, small boil yourself. But see your doctor if a boil occurs on your face or spine or if you have:

  • A boil that worsens rapidly or is extremely painful

  • Boils that are very large, haven't healed in 2 weeks or are accompanied by a fever

  • Frequent boils

  • Red lines radiating from a boil, which may be a sign that the infection has entered your bloodstream

  • A condition that suppresses your immune system, such as an organ transplant or HIV infection

Children and older adults who develop one or more boils should also receive medical care.

 

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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