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Boil Treatment

Skin Boil First Aid and When to See the Doctor

By

Updated May 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

skin boil

Severe boils require a physician's help

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skin boil

Boils are often blamed on spider bites but are really infected skin.

Image provided by Melvin Braun, About.com Guest

Boils look like really big pimples and are pus filled abscesses. They can be the size of a kernel of corn or grow bigger than a golf ball. Often, they are warmer than the skin around them. Boils form from infected skin: staphylococcus aureas, MRSA or group A streptococcus.

If someone else in your home has a boil, the best way for you to avoid them is to stay clean. Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap. If you can't wash your hands for some reason, use an antibacterial hand cleaner. Do not share clothes, bedding or towels and washcloths with people who have boils.

First Aid for Boils

The presence of a boil means the infection's already there. The trick now is to let it heal and not make it worse. The boil will develop more pressure until it bursts and drains the pus. It should heal after that (sometimes it heals without developing a white head, but that's rare). There are things you can do to encourage boils to heal and things you don't want to do, which will make them worse.

Dos and Don'ts:

 

 

 

 

 

  • Do keep skin boils clean: The immune system needs to focus on the infection that's already there. Adding more bacteria will make it harder to fight the infection. Don't bother with antibacterial soaps and cleaners -- any soap is fine.
  • Do cover it with clean, dry dressings: The idea is to contain any drainage. Boils are hotbeads of bacteria and will easily spread to other areas and other people. Change the dressings frequently, especially if the boil is oozing. Get rid of dressings by sealing them in a bag first.
  • Do wash your hands: You should be washing your hands regularly anyway. Anytime you touch a boil or change a dressing, wash your hands with warm water and soap.
  • Do place a warm, moist cloth on your boil: Heat encourages the formation of pus and might help the boil break, drain and heal. Place a warm compress on the boil several times a day. Remember to use each cloth only once and wash it in hot water.
  • Don't pop it or lance it: Skin boils need to drain, and most will burst and drain on their own. Sometimes a healthcare worker will need to lance and drain the boil to allow it to heal. This is not a do-it-yourself skill. Done incorrectly or with contaminated tools, lancing will result in a bigger boil or a spreading infection.
  • Don't share: Keep your bedding, clothes, washcloths and towels to yourself. Wash all contaminated bedding, towels and clothing (anything that came in contact with the boil) in very hot water.

When to See the Doctor

See a doctor for boils on the face, around the eye or near the spine.

Boils usually heal in a couple of weeks. If it isn't healing on its own by the first week, it's time to see the doctor. I recommend calling the doc to make an appointment if your boil hasn't started draining after 7 days.

One boil that heals all by itself isn't really a big problem. Several boils, either in clusters or occuring one after the other, warrant a trip to the doctor.

If the boil has red streaks running out of it or if you develop a fever or chills, go see your doctor or go to the hospital.

You can also go see the doc if your boil is really big -- think more brussell sprout than corn kernel -- or if the pain is severe or unbearable.

Sources:

"Furuncle." MedlinePlus. USNLM/NIH. Updated 28 Oct 2008. Accessed 6 Aug 2010.

Stulberg, D.L., M.A. Penrod and R.A. Blatny. "Common bacterial skin infections." Am Fam Physician. Jul 2002. Accessed online 6 Aug 2010.

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