Abscesses of the skin can have a number of different causes, but the most common is a condition called furunculosis. A furuncle is a small area of infection, usually with a staph germ, in a hair follicle, which may or may not support a hair you can actually see. The furuncle fills up with yellow pus, gets red and irritated, and eventually pops, with or without someone to pop it. There are lots of other skin problems that can cause the same symptoms, including cellulitis, impetigo, and even necrotizing fasciitis in its early stages, but if you get boils over and over again, chances are that it's a staph infection in hair follicles.
And chances are that you have tried a lot of remedies that don't work. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and make sure of the basics.
- When you get a boil, make sure you don't spread the infection. You don't want to infect somebody else, and you don't want the boil to pop and infect you somewhere else. Lightly bandage the boil and change the bandage every time you shower or bathe. Don't share towels or wash cloths or bed linens or clothes, unless they have been washed in hot water and dried in a clothes dryer. Don't wear the same clothes or use the same wash cloths, towels, and bed linens day after day without disinfecting them.
- Keep your skin moisturized, but not wet. This is especially important if you have diabetes or some other that dries out the skin, like scleroderma. The simplest, cheapest, and most effective way to moisturize your skin is to wash or bathe in warm (not hot) water a couple of times a day and pat yourself dry with a clean towel. It's also good to use moisturizers, but avoid any product that (1) has any kind of scent or perfume or (2) lists alcohol as an ingredient. Those ingredients can dry out the skin. Keeping your skin moisturized keeps it from cracking and letting infection inside.
- Apply aloe vera gel directly to infected skin. Aloe vera contains complex carbohydrates that fit like a key into "locks" on the surface of white blood cells. They "unlock" immune activity against a variety of microorganisms. The problem with aloe vera products is that they don't actually contain aloe vera: Recent consumer lab testing found no actual aloe vera in aloe vera gels sold at Walmart, Target, and CVS. However, you can rely on products such as Aubrey Organics and Nature's Way, or from the gel from your own plants.
- You can safely "pop" a boil by applying moist heat. Soak a clean cloth in water that has been warmed to 45 degrees C (113 degrees F), about the hottest you would want to put your hands into, and hold on a boil with a glove hand (so you won't infect your fingers) until the cloth cools. Then rewarm the cloth and hold it on the boil some more. If the boil pops, clean and throw away the cloth. If not, put the cloth in the laundry as soon as possible (don't let it contaminate other washcloths or clothes) and put a light bandage (such as gauze held with tape) over the boil and let it heal on its own.
- Do not lance the boil on your own. You may just spread the infection to adjacent skin.
- Use tea tree oil soaps and shampoos. They help fight the infections that lurk in hair follicles. Tea tree oil products are not recommended for use on boys who have not reached puberty; in rare cases they have been linked to hormone imbalances in prepubescent males.
No matter what treatment your doctor prescribes, these simple measures will help. And no matter what treatment your doctor prescribes, it won't work if you don't take care of basic hygiene.
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