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Boils and Carbuncles: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Prevention and Home Remedies

Boils are red, tender, and painful and pus filled lumps that occur under the skin due to infection of hair follicle. The lumps grow in size gradually till it ruptures and pus is drained. Draining of pus reduces the pain. Boils (also known as furuncles) are infection of single only few hair follicles and infection of a cluster of hair follicles are called carbuncles, generally covers an area of skin and connected infected hair follicles. Do not attempt to prick or squeeze a boil or carbuncle, as it may cause spread of infection. It is best to seek medical attention if your boil or carbuncle lasts more than a week or two and if it is along with fever.

Boils or carbuncles can occur anywhere in the body where there are hair follicles. However, they tend to occur more frequently in certain areas such as face, neck, armpits, buttocks or thighs (these are hair-bearing areas where one usually sweat or experience friction).

What are the symptoms of boils or carbuncles?

The signs and symptoms of boils or carbuncles are,

  • Boils or carbuncles usually start as a small painful, tender, warm lump on the skin
  • The size gradually increases (as pus formation occurs) over a few days and small white tip is formed
  • Eventually the lump bursts and drains the pus, which also results in reduction in pain.
  • Carbuncles are larger in size (as it involve a cluster of infected hair follicles that are interconnected) and most likely to leave a scar mark when it heals.
  • Boils and especially carbuncles may be associated with fever and chills.

Causes and risk factors of boils or carbuncles:

The most common causative agent for boils or carbuncles is staphylococcus (occur normally on the skin as commensal organism). Unfortunately the organisms are resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics and not easy to treat.

Risk factors of boils or carbuncles include,

  • Close association with a person infected with staphylococcus, i.e. already a patient of boils or carbuncles. However, anyone including healthy person can develop boils and carbuncles, any time.
  • If you are diabetic, you are at greater risk of developing boils and carbuncles. You also may require more time to heal, as your capability to fight infection is lower.
  • If your immunity is lower, you are at greater risk of boils and carbuncles.
  • If you have other skin problems such as acne, eczema or damage to skin your risk is higher.

If not treated adequately and in time, boils and carbuncles may lead to (although rarely) serious complications such as sepsis, osteomyelitis, endocarditis etc.

Diagnosis of boils and carbuncles usually do not require any lab test or investigation. Your doctor can diagnose the condition easily by inspection and examination. However, sometimes your doctor may ask for culture and antibiotic sensitivity test, especially if it is not responding to routine therapy.

Treatment of boils and carbuncles:

Small boils may heal by warm compression and by keeping the area clean with antiseptic solution. Treatment mainly is done by incision and drainage of pus filled lumps and by use of appropriate antibiotics.

Draining of pus is usually done by making a small incision on the tip of the boil/lump. If infection is deep and if the size of lump is large (as in the case of carbuncles) it may not be possible to completely drain the pus. In such case pus is drained by using sterile gauze and by soaking the gauze to remove the pus.

In most cases, if pus is drained properly and completely, antibiotic is not required. However, if there is recurrence of boils and carbuncles and if it is large, antibiotic may be required.

How to prevent boils and carbuncles?

It is not possible to always prevent boils and carbuncles. However, following measures can help prevent boils and carbuncles, to some extent,

  • A famous microbiologist has said that simple toilet soap is sufficient in most cases to clean hands and prevent infection. This is true for preventing boils and carbuncles too. Wash your hands with a mild soap frequently, especially before and after eating, after going to toilet, after visiting a patient etc.
  • It is important to keep your wounds and boils and carbuncles covered, to prevent infection to persons closed to you.
  • Do not share personal items such as towel, sheets and other cloths, razors, equipment used in athletics etc. Keep these items personal and keep them clean and dry.

Home remedies and alternative medicine for boils and carbuncles:

Many aspects need to be remembered in dealing with boils and carbuncles. Never prick boil with any sharp object or squeeze it. It may spread infection to nearby areas. Apply warm compress several times a day, as it can speed up rupture and drain it easily. Improve personal hygiene by using clean and dry cloths, by not sharing your personal items with others and by washing your hands frequently.

Tea tree oil and various other antiseptics have been tried in treatment of boils and carbuncles. However, strong scientific evidence is lacking in use of such treatment modalities.

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