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Boils are common and usually pretty harmless, but what exactly are boils, how do you make sure your skin lesions is really a boil, and what do you need to know about boil treatment?

Can you treat boils yourself, using home remedies such as compresses or natural boil medicine, or do you need to see a doctor when you are dealing with a suspected boil? If you're not sure, read this. 

What Are Boils, Exactly?

Boils, also called furuncles, are infections that originate deep within a hair follicle and surround it completely. Boils are typically caused by Staphylococcus aureus, but MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and Panton-Valentine leukocidin can also cause boils. Boils can appear anywhere on the body, but hairy areas that are prone to sweating — such as the buttocks, neck, face, and thighs — are especially vulnerable to boils. [1

If you have a boil, you can generally expect the following progression of events:

  • You notice a small, red, spot on your skin that's slightly tender. 
  • The bump becomes bigger and tighter. 
  • The skin around the boil becomes slightly red and inflamed. 
  • Your skin turns into a mini pus volcano complete with a tell-tale yellow tip, and it will almost always eventually "erupt" quite spontaneously if you don't do anything about it. Pus and other fluids will ooze out. [2]

A carbuncle, meanwhile, occurs when a number of boils join together under your skin to create a cluster of boils. [3]

Differential Diagnosis: Is My Suspected Boil Really A Boil?

Other skin lesions some people might confuse with boils include:

  • Also caused by bacteria, folliculitis is a more superficial inflammation of a hair follicle. This may result from friction due to contact with clothes, or shaving, for instance. Folliculitis can usually successfully be treated with moist hot compresses, but antibiotics may be needed in some cases. [4]
  • Cutaneous sporotrichosis is a fungal infection usually caused by contact with soil or plants. It can be confused with boil symptoms quite easily, but it needs to be treated with antifungal medication. [5]
  • Hidradenitis suppurativa is a chronic skin disease that typically strikes the armpits, genital area, and the skin folds under the breasts. Since HS causes nodules that look a lot like boils, it's easy to think you're dealing with boils when you first notice the symptoms. HS does not resolve on its own, unlike simple boils, and its treatment is much more complex. [6]
  • Leishmaniasis — a parasitic disease spread by sand flies. You're more likely to encounter this if you live in or have visited a country in a tropical or subtropical region. [7]

I Think I Have A Boil: Can I Treat Boils At Home Or Do I Need To See A Doctor?

Uncomplicated boils are extremely common and really no big deal. There is usually absolutely no reason to seek medical attention for a boil. 

Instead, those folks who are sure they're dealing with a boil are best off using warm, moist compresses to help speed up the healing process and relieve some of their discomfort. Placing such a compress — made simply from a clean washcloth, for instance — onto the area of the boil twice a day will encourage your boil to come to a head faster, and the improved blood circulation also invites antibodies to the site. You should keep using compresses once your boil opens and starts draining. [8]

What shouldn't you do? No matter how tempting or instinctual it is, don't pop, squeeze, puncture, or otherwise attempt to open your boil yourself. 

Since boils are indeed contagious [9], you should also take steps to prevent spreading boils to other people or other parts of your own body:

  • Wash your hands after touching your boil (as well as before, to prevent introducing other pathogens to the site)
  • Wash towels, washcloths (including those you use as compresses), and any other fabrics your boils come into contact with as soon as possible — don't use these items more than once!
  • Use a dressing or sterile gauze (ask your pharmacist for advice about what one to use) once your boil opens. 

If you are looking for natural boil medicine to speed the healing process along, you may wish to try:

  • Mixing a spoon of turmeric into a glass of water and drinking the mixture two or three times a day [10].
  • Using a tea oil gel with a strength of five percent directly on your boil [11].
  • Topical application of Acanthus montanus extract [12].

So, When Should I Call A Doctor About A Boil?

You should call your doctor if you are unsure whether your boil is really a boil, since other skin problems can look quite a bit like boils, as we've already seen. You should especially seek medical attention if:

  • You're suffering from fever and general malaise. 
  • Your boil doesn't resolve within two weeks and instead becomes larger and squishier without bursting.
  • Your boil is located somewhere on your face or your spine.
  • You have more than one boil, or you think you have a carbuncle (cluster of boils).
  • You are suffering from recurrent boils. [13]

Should your boil not have opened and gotten better within two weeks, ask your doctor if you need antibiotics for boils, which are sometimes used as part of boil treatment [14]. In some cases, your healthcare provider will also want to drain the pus from your boil by making a small incision [15].

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