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Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Boils and carbuncles are bacterial infections of hair follicles and surrounding skin that form pustules (small blister-like swellings containing pus) around the follicle. Boils are sometimes called furuncles. A carbuncle is formed when several furuncles merge to form a single deep abscess with several heads or drainage points.


Boils and carbuncles are firm reddish swellings about0.2-0.4 in (5-10 mm) across that are slightly raised above the skin surface. They are sore to the touch. A boil usually has a visible central core of pus; a carbuncle is larger and has several visible heads. Boils occur most commonly on the face, back of the neck, buttocks, upper legs and groin area, armpits, and upper torso. Carbuncles are less common than single boils; they are most likely to form at the back of the neck. Males are more likely to develop carbuncles.

Boils and carbuncles are common problems in the general population, particularly among adolescents and adults. People who are more likely to develop these skin infections include those with:

  • diabetes, especially when treated by injected insulin
  • alcoholism or drug abuse
  • poor personal hygiene
  • crowded living arrangements
  • jobs or hobbies that expose them to greasy or oily substances, especially petroleum products
  • allergies or immune system disorders, including HIV infection.
  • family members with recurrent skin infections

Causes and symptoms

Boils and carbuncles are caused by Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that causes an infection in an oil gland or hair follicle. Although the surface of human skin is usually resistant to bacterial infection, S. aureus can enter through a break in the skin surface—including breaks caused by needle punctures for insulin or drug injections. Hair follicles that are blocked by greasy creams, petroleum jelly, or similar products are more vulnerable to infection. Bacterial skin infections can be spread by shared cosmetics or washcloths, close human contact, or by contact with pus from a boil or carbuncle.

As the infection develops, an area of inflamed tissue gradually forms a pus-filled swelling or pimple that is

Boils often occur from a bacterial infection in a hair follicle or skin gland. (Custom Medical Stock Photo. Reproduced by permission.) Boils often occur from a bacterial infection in a hair follicle or skin gland. (Custom Medical Stock Photo. Reproduced by permission.)

painful to touch. As the boil matures, it forms a yellowish head or point. It may either continue to swell until the point bursts open and allows the pus to drain, or it may be gradually reabsorbed into the skin. It takes between one and two weeks for a boil to heal completely after it comes to a head and discharges pus. The bacteria that cause the boil can spread into other areas of the skin or even into the bloodstream if the skin around the boil is injured by squeezing. If the infection spreads, the patient will usually develop chills and fever, swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenitis), and red lines in the skin running outward from the boil.

Furunculosis is a word that is sometimes used to refer to recurrent boils. Many patients have repeated episodes of furunculosis that are difficult to treat because their nasal passages carry colonies of S. aureus. These bacterial colonies make it easy for the patient's skin to be reinfected. They are most likely to develop in patients with diabetes, HIV infection, or other immune system disorders.

Carbuncles are formed when the bacteria infect several hair follicles that are close together. Carbunculosis is a word that is sometimes used to refer to the development of carbuncles. The abscesses spread until they merge with each other to form a single large area of infected skin with several pus-filled heads. Patients with carbuncles may also have a low-grade fever or feel generally unwell.


The diagnosis of boils and carbuncles is usually made by the patient's primary care doctor on the basis of visual examination of the skin. In some cases involving recurrent boils on the face, the doctor may need to consider acne as a possible diagnosis, but for the most part boils and carbuncles are not difficult to distinguish from other skin disorders.

S. aureus can easily be cultured in the laboratory if the doctor needs to rule out inclusion cysts or deep fungal infections that gardeners sometimes get. The doctor can make a culture from pus taken from the boil or carbuncle to confirm the diagnosis of a staphylococcal infection. He or she can also culture the patient's nasal discharge to test for the presence of a S. aureus colony.


Patient and family education

Patient education is an important part of the treatment of boils and carbuncles. Patients need to be warned against picking at or squeezing boils because of the danger of spreading the infection into other parts of the skin or bloodstream. It is especially important to avoid squeezing boils around the mouth or nose because infections in these areas can be carried to the brain. Patients should also be advised about keeping the skin clean, washing their hands carefully before and after touching the boil or carbuncle, avoiding the use of greasy cosmetics or creams, and keeping their towels and washcloths separate from those of other family members. Some doctors may recommend an antiseptic soap or gel for washing the infected areas.

If the patient has had several episodes of furunculosis, the doctor may examine family members or close contacts to see if they are carriers of S. aureus. In many cases they also need treatment for boils or carbuncles. Skin infections and reinfections involving small groups or clusters of people are being reported more frequently in the United States.


Boils are usually treated with application of antibiotic creams—usually clindamycin or polymyxin—following the application of hot compresses. The compresses help the infection to come to a head and drain.

Carbuncles and furunculosis are usually treated with oral antibiotics as well as antibiotic creams or ointments. The specific medications that are given are usually dicloxacillin (Dynapen) or cephalexin (Keflex). Erythromycin may be given to patients who are allergic to penicillin. The usual course of oral antibiotics is 5-10 days; however, patients with recurrent furunculosis may be given oral antibiotics for longer periods. Furunculosis is treated with a combination of dicloxacillin and rifampin (Rifadin).

Patients with bacterial colonies in their nasal passages are often given mupirocin (Bactroban) to apply directly to the lining of the nose.

A close-up view of a carbuncle on person's back. (Photograph by John Watney, Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.) A close-up view of a carbuncle on person's back. (Photograph by John Watney, Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

Surgical treatment

Boils and carbuncles that are very large, or that are not draining, may be opened with a sterile needle or surgical knife to allow the pus to drain. The doctor will usually give the patient a local anesthetic if a knife is used; surgical treatment of boils is painful and usually leaves noticeable scars.

Alternative treatment

Naturopathic therapy

Naturopathic practitioners usually recommend changes in the patient's diet as well as applying herbal poultices to the infected area. The addition of zinc supplements and vitamin A to the diet is reported to be effective in treating boils. The application of a paste or poultice containing goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) root is recommended by naturopaths on the grounds that goldenseal helps to kill bacteria and reduce inflammation.


Homeopaths maintain that taking the proper homeopathic medication in the first stages of a boil or carbuncle will bring about early resolution of the infection and prevent pus formation. The most likely choices are Belladonna or Hepar sulphuris. If the boil has already formed, Mercurius vivus or Silica may be recommended to bring the pus to a head.

Western herbal therapies

A variety of herbal remedies can be applied topically to boils to fight infection. These include essential oils of bergamot (Citrus bergamia), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lavender (Lavandula officinalis), and sage (Salvia officinalis), as well as tea tree oil (Melaleuca spp.). Herbalists also recommend washing the skin with a mixture of goldenseal and witch hazel. To fight the inflammation associated with boils, herbalists suggest marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) ointment, tinctures (herbal solutions made with alcohol) of blue flag (Iris versicolor) or myrrh (Commiphora molmol), and slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) made into a poultice.


The prognosis for most boils is excellent. Some patients, however, suffer from recurrent carbuncles or furunculosis. In addition, although the spread of infection from boils is relatively unusual, there have been deaths reported from brain infections caused by squeezing boils on the upper lip or in the tissue folds at the base of the nose.


There are some precautions that people can take to minimize the risk of developing bacterial skin infections:

  • cleanse skin properly with soap and water, and take showers rather than tub baths
  • do not share washcloths, towels, or facial cosmetics with others
  • cut down on greasy or fatty foods and snacks
  • always wash hands before touching the face
  • consider using antiseptic soaps and shower gels
  • consult a doctor if furunculosis is a persistent problem—it may indicate an underlying disease such as diabetes



Berger, Timothy G. "Skin and Appendages." In Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 1996. 35th ed. Ed. Stephen McPhee, et al. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1995.

"Folliculitis, Furunculosis, and Carbunculosis." In Professional Guide to Diseases. 5th ed. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corporation, 1995.

Hacker, Steven M. "Common Bacterial and Fungal Infections of the Integument." In Current Diagnosis. Vol. 9. Ed. RexB. Conn, et al. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1997.

Rasmussen, James E. "Bacterial Infections of the Skin." In Conn's Current Therapy, 1996, Ed. Robert E. Rakel. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1996.

Turkington, Carol A., and Jeffrey S. Dover. Skin Deep: An A-Z of Skin Disorders, Treatments, and Health. New York: Facts On File, 1996.

Rebecca J. Frey


Abscess—A localized collection of pus in the skin or other body tissue.

Carbuncle—A large, deep skin abscess formed by a group or cluster of boils.

Follicle—The small sac at the base of a hair shaft. The follicle lies below the skin surface.

Furunculosis—A condition in which the patient suffers from recurrent episodes of boils.

Pustule—A small raised pimple or blister-like swelling of the skin that contains pus.

Additional topics

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