Skin boils are a common malady. Luckily home remedies can relieve pain in most cases.
Ugly and painful, boils (also known as furuncles) are abscesses (pockets of infection) deep in the skin. They result when staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria commonly found wherever there are people, invades the deepest layers of the skin through a hair follicle. Sometimes boils require medical intervention (see below to learn if you should consult a doctor), but most of the time, boils can be successfully treated at home.
A boil begins as a tender red area which soon becomes firm and more localized. Within a few days, a pus-filled head forms at the center of the boil. When the boil drains naturally, it is through this head. The proper home treatment of a boil as soon as the boil is discovered will reduce the boil’s severity and duration, and will lessen the chances of complications requiring medical treatment.
A difficulty boils present is that they are encapsulated deep in the skin and therefore do not respond to topical antibiotic creams. When oral or injected antibiotics are used to prevent a systemic bacterial infection, the antibiotics may have difficulty penetrating the boil’s capsule from the inside as well. Even so, the area around the boil, and your hands when you are ministering to it, should be kept clean with antiseptics and anti-bacterial soap.
The first thing you can do for a boil is to apply moist heat for fifteen minutes or more at least four times a day. A wet washcloth works perfectly well. The heat will increase blood circulation to the area, which will increase the flow of infection-fighting antibodies and white blood cells to the boil. It will also reduce inflammation and pain and speed the boil’s development and resolution. Immediate and nearly complete pain relief will result when the boil drains, but trying to drain a boil that is still firm by squeezing it will increase the pain and, perhaps, increase the area of infection. After the head forms, and with continued applications of moist heat, most boils will drain by themselves within five to seven days. Boils which don’t improve within a few days should be seen by a doctor. Very large or painful boils and multi-headed boils contain multiple pockets of pus and should be lanced by a doctor. Lancing your own boil, or squeezing the pus out of it, will make you vulnerable to re-infection and will increase the likelihood that you will be left with a scar.
After a boil has drained it’s important to keep the area around it clean. Use antibiotic soap for a few days and apply alcohol or another antiseptic to the area. Don’t share towels with other members of your household. If boils recur frequently, see a doctor to make sure that you do not have an immune disorder.
Most boils can be successfully treated at home, and just a few simple precautions will prevent re-infection and infection of other family members. Home treatment works best when intervention is early and diligent. Because staphylococcal aureus can be a dangerous bacterium, it is imperative that you seek medical attention when indicated.
Boils and Skin Abscesses Requiring Medical Attention
Unfortunately, some boils, and some related conditions, cannot be cured at home. Carbuncles (clusters of boils producing clusters of heads), for example, are very painful, often produce fever and chills, and should be lanced by a physician.
Like boils, cystic acne (which produces large pustules and is deeper than non-cystic acne) results when hair follicles become infected; however the offending bacteria in cystic acne is Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), rather than Staphylococcus aureus. Cystic acne can be very distressing and can leave unsightly scars. It should be treated by a dermatologist, who can prescribe antibiotics and products to reduce inflammation, pain, and the likelihood of severe scarring.
When sweat glands (rather than hair follicles) become inflamed and infected the result is hidrandenitis suppurativa, a condition which produces multiple abscesses under the skin of the underarms or groin. These abscesses often do not respond to moist heat or antibiotics, in which case the affected sweat glands must be removed. Hidrandenitis suppurativa should always be evaluated by a doctor.
Infected hair follicles in the crease of the buttocks produce pilonidal cysts after prolonged periods of sitting, as during a long car trip. Small pilonidal cysts involving only a few hair follicles may respond to home treatment; however, they will frequently be more like carbuncles than simple boils. They take longer to heal than simple boils because sitting irritates them and because their location on the body make them vulnerable to re-infection. Like hidrandenitis suppurativa, pilonidal cysts should always he seen by a doctor.
You should also see a doctor if:
You have diabetes or any medical condition which compromises the immune system.
You are taking medications which suppress the immune system.
A boil develops in an infant.
A boil is accompanied by fever.
A boil interferes with the movement of a body part.
A boil is located on the face, rectum, groin, or spine.
A boil is a many-headed carbuncle or is larger than a marble.
A boil causes severe pain or swelling, or produces red streaks.
The boil doesn’t respond to home care.
Boils recur frequently.