A boil is a skin infection that originates on a hair follicle or an oil gland. The infected area turns red and a small bump develops on it shortly afterwards. In about 4 to 7 days, the bump turns white as pus begins to accumulate under the skin. Boils may appear anywhere on the human body, but the most common areas are on the face, arms, under armpits, neck, chest, back, shoulders, thighs, area around vagina and buttocks. If a boil develops on the eyelid, it is known as a sty.
If a few boils appear in a group it is known as a carbuncle. They tend to appear on the back of the neck, on the back and on the thigh. A carbuncle can reach a maximum size of up to 10 cm (4 inches) and may leak pus from multiple points. People suffering from a carbuncle may also display the following associated symptoms:
- General malaise.
- Weakness and exhaustion.
- A high temperature of 100.4F (38C) or even higher.
Carbuncles are pretty rare and tend to appear in middle-aged or older men with a weak immune system.
Types of Boils
Depending upon the location or the cause of the inflammation, boils can be categorized into the following types:
- Cystic acne: This usually show up on the face of teenagers. They are caused when the oil ducts get clogged up and subsequently infected. The main way that cystic acne is different than regular acne is that the site of the infection is a lot deeper than that of regular acne, which tends to be a lot more superficial.
- Furuncle: This is usually caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, when it infects a hair follicle. It can have one or multiple openings, depending upon the number of hair follicles in the general vicinity that were infected. If it is left untreated, it may cause fever or chills as well!
- Hidradenitis suppurativa: This is caused when the sweat glands under the armpits, breasts or the groin gets infected. It usually has multiple abscesses, similar to that of a carbuncle. Usually surgery is required to treat this condition.
- Pinonidal cyst: This occurs on the crease of the buttocks, usually formed after a long trip that involved a lot of sitting at one spot for extended periods of time. It is formed after the hair follicles in the area becomes infected and inflamed. It results in the formation of a tender nodule that becomes firm and painful, which causes major discomfort while sitting.
Causes of Boils: Where Do They Come From?
The common factor behind boils being formed is a build-up of bacteria in a limited area. It can be caused by a lot of different factors:
- Ingrown hairs: If the hair strand is not able to come out of the skin, it is known as an ingrown hair. Ingrown hairs tend to clog pores, which leads to a build-up of sebum (a natural oil produced by our skin that makes it relatively water-proof) that clumps up the staphylococcus bacteria, leading to occasional or recurring boils.
- Other illnesses: Certain illnesses like diabetes or kidney failure or even AIDS weaken our immune system. Hence minor skin infractions have the chance of getting infected, resulting in boils. Some suffer from diseases such as hypogammaglobulinemia that lowers the production of antibodies (white blood cells that fight infections) which will increase the propensity of boil being formed and keep getting them again in the future.
- Lack of certain nutrients: Sometimes, you need not be seriously ill to have a weak immune system. People who do not have a significant amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet will lack essential Vitamins, such as Vitamin A and Vitamin C and B Vitamins (Especially Vitamin B6), which boosts out immune system and fortifies our body against bacterial infections, including boils. Having a balanced diet that contain large portions of fruits and green vegetables go a long way towards preventing boils.
- Foreign objects: Foreign objects stuck in our skin, irrespective of how small (such as a splinter) can be a source of bacterial infection that may easily translate into a boil overnight.
- Poor hygiene: Lack of proper hygiene allows bacteria to be built up in a place, which can easily translate into boils. Simply developing reasonable habits to foster hygiene can easily eliminate this cause forever.
- Exposure to harsh chemicals: Certain chemicals may trigger an allergic reaction, which may manifest itself in the form of boils.
Are Boils Contagious?
Symptoms of a Boil
Almost everyone on the planet is familiar with what a boil looks like. It usually forms over a period of a few days during which they go through the following steps:
- There is painful, hard red bump that is half an inch in size.
- Over the next couple of days, the bump becomes bigger, softer and at times, even more painful.
- The tip turns white as pus begins to form at the top.
If you see any of the following symptoms, then there may be a severe infection and you should seek immediate medical attention:
- More boils develop around the initial boil, leading to the formation of a carbuncle, as mentioned earlier.
- There is swelling on the lymph nodes.
- You start suffering from a fever.
- The skin around the boil starts showing signs of infection. It will in turn be swollen, red and warm.
How to Pop a Boil
Popping a boil is an extremely popular method of dealing with boils. It gets rid of the pus and provides some welcome relief from the incessant pain caused by the pus build-up. However, before proceeding with popping the boil, the following safeguards needs to be kept in mind:
- Treat the affected area with heat: Before popping the boil treat the affected area with a heat pack. This dilates the blood vessels on and around the boil, which rushes antibodies, oxygen and nutrients to it to fight the infection. This will ensure that pus will be formed sooner and the skin will become soft as well, making the area ‘ripe’ for popping.
- Do not pop the boil if it is hard and small: Popping a boil always carry a risk of secondary infections. If you start the heat pack treatment as soon as the boil starts forming, there is a very good chance that the boil may drain internally and popping may not be required at all! Only pop the boil once there is significant head or pustule and the skin is soft to the touch.
Repeated application of a heat pack or a warm compress (a washcloth immersed in hot water) will either drain the pus internally or pop it. If it does not do so, you can easily ‘pop’ it with just a little encouragement, by applying some pressure on the edges of the boil. After you pop it, make sure that you implement the following safeguards:
- Make sure that you drain as much of the pus as you can. Once you see some blood seeping out of the mouth (after the pus has been drained) then it is time to stop. Unnecessary pressure can cause permanent scar marks.
- Keep applying the heat pack even after the boil has been popped. This will ensure that the antibodies and the nutrients are still being delivered to the area, thus preventing the area from secondary infections.
- After the boil has been popped, you need to protect the area from secondary infections. To do so visit your local pharmacy and procure a tube of povidone iodine, some gauze and medical tapes. Now apply generous amounts of the lotion on the open sore. Feel free to coat the lotion with some turmeric powder if you have any. Now cover the area with gauze and medical tapes. Replace this dressing at least twice a day for a few days, till the sore heals completely.
Home Remedies to Get Rid of Boils
- Vitamins A and E
Vitamin A boosts your immunity and Vitamin E plays a key role in maintaining a healthy epidermis. Hence they can help you get rid of the boil. Cantaloupe, grapefruit, apricots, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach and broccoli are great sources of Vitamin A. Spinach and broccoli are also a great source of Vitamin E, along with tree nuts (especially almonds and hazelnuts), olives, papaya, parsley, avocado and kale. If you do not fancy consuming all these foods, then you can always turn to supplements.
- Tea Tree Oil
Besides the minor topical discomfort, boils are usually pretty benign. Things take a turn for the worse due to secondary infections. This is where tea tree oil can help, because of its potent anti-microbial properties. However, it should not be applied in an undiluted form as it may be a little too harsh on the skin. Mix it in equal parts with a carrier oil such as almond oil and apply it on the affected area with a cotton swab.
Some people are allergic to tea tree oil. If you have not used it before, it is highly recommended that you apply some diluted tea tree oil on an unblemished part of your skin. You should feel a minor stinging sensation that should go away in a few minutes. However, if you feel a persistent burning sensation, you may be allergic to tea tree oil and you should seek an alternate treatment.
- Castor Oil
Castor oil is helpful for a boil in the same way that tea tree oil is, except it is gentler on the skin and can be applied on the boil in an undiluted form. Apply a few drops with the help of a cotton swab a few times during the course of the day until you get rid of the boil.
Indian lilac, better known as neem in the Indian subcontinent is another effective treatment for boils on any part of the body. The reasons for it are its documented astringent and antibacterial properties. There are a couple of ways by which you can use neem leaves to treat your boils:
- You can boil a handful of neem leaves in a pan of water till about 2/3rds of the water disappears. Wait for the liquid to cool down to room temperature, strain it and apply it as a topical lotion on the affected area with a cotton ball as often as you would like.
- Take a handful of neem leaves and add a tablespoon of water and a teaspoon of turmeric powder to it. Use a pestle and mortar to grind it into a smooth paste. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric can come really handy to deal with large boils or even carbuncles or furuncles.
Before increasing the potency of the neem treatment, turmeric is an effective treatment for boils in its own right. The antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric have been documented in Ayurveda (the ancient treatise of traditional Indian medicine) and in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). These properties are attributed to an enzyme called curcumin, which turmeric has in abundance.
There are couple of ways you can use turmeric to treat your boils:
- Mix some turmeric powder with water to form a thick paste. Apply this paste on the affected area and leave it on for about thirty minutes. Rinse it off afterwards. You can apply this multiple times during the course of the day. This will cause your boil to ‘ripen’ faster and will pop on its own in a couple of days. Some add some milk cream and organic apple cider vinegar (ACV) to increase the potency of the treatment.
- Consuming turmeric daily will help you fight the infection from the inside. Try having some Indian food, as most curries are prepared using turmeric as one of its ingredients. You can also add a teaspoon of turmeric powder into a glass of warm milk and drink it every night before you go to bed. If you are lactose intolerant, you can use soy milk or even water instead!
- Epsom Salt
Epsom salt is an astringent, which can draw out the pus and associated impurities from your boil. Its antibacterial properties protect the area from secondary infections as well. There are a couple of ways you can use Epsom salt to treat your boils:
- You can add ¼ cup of Epsom salt in two cups of warm water and use it as a warm compress.
- You can add a cup of Epsom salt into your bathwater and take a twenty minute bath. You can take this bath up to three times a day. Do not over-indulge in this treatment as it may leave your skin feeling dry.
- Egg Whites
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests that egg whites can be a highly effective treatment for boils. This is because egg whites are rich in Vitamins A and E, which as mentioned earlier boosts immunity and protects the epidermis.
Simply boil an egg, separate it from the yolk and hold it on the boil using gauze and medical tapes. Replace the dressing every six hours.
Eating egg whites will also fortify your system against boils from the inside!
Onions have natural antiseptic properties that can be used to treat boils. There are a few ways you can apply this treatment:
- Simply cut the onion into thick slices, apply a slice on the boil and hold it in place using gauze and medical tapes. Change the dressing every couple of hours.
- There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that grating an onion using a food processor and applying the paste as a dressing makes the treatment even more effective.
- Boil three regular sized onions in a pan of water. Wait till only 1/3 of the water is remaining. Strain and let the water cool down to room temperature. Wash the boil repeatedly with the water during the course of the day, the same way you would use the neem water.
Medical Treatment for Boils
There are different medical treatments for boils, which are recommended based upon the severity of the affliction. Following are the most common treatments:
- OTC Painkillers: The best way to deal with a boil is to let it heal naturally. There is some associated pain, caused by the pressure caused by the accumulated pus on the nerve endings on the skin. This can be easily dealt with the help of some over the counter (OTC) painkillers such as Advil and Ibuprofen. Prescription strength painkillers are usually never prescribed to deal with boils.
- Lancing: In this method, a small incision is made with a sharp piece of metal, followed by continued pressure on the periphery to drain all the pus. This is usually applied when a boil grows inwards, as a result of which the visible pustule is a little too small, but the sufferer is under a lot of pain because of the pressure created on the nerves by the built up pus. Usually a local anesthetic is applied to numb the affected area. This procedure should only be applied by a licensed medical professional. If done incorrectly, it can cause serious injury and can also make the sufferer prone to secondary infections especially in the case of vaginal boils.
- Antibiotics: In case of a severe infection a penicillin-based antibiotic such as flucloxacillin is prescribed. Based upon your medical history your physician may prescribe alternates, such as clarithromycin or erythromycin. Antibiotics are usually prescribed when:
- The sufferer is suffering from furuncles or carbuncles.
- The sufferer has a high temperature.
- The sufferer is facing intense pain and discomfort.
- If the boil is on the face, because of a cystic acne or otherwise. This is because boils on the face carry the biggest risk of getting infected with secondary infections.
- If the sufferer starts suffering from cellulitis or any other secondary infection.