A boil is a skin condition which occurs due to a build-up of dead tissue and pus in a specific area under the skin. In most cases boils are brought on by inflammation of the hair follicles. The medical name for a boil is a furuncle and it is possible for single boils to become clustered and develop into a network of boils, which is known as a carbuncle. Boils are often mild, but the can develop into abscesses in severe cases.
Symptoms of boils
Boils are red lumps which are tender to touch and cause pain. The boil is filled with pus and this can cause it to develop a white head once the boil is set to burst. In the case of severe infection additional symptoms, including fever (high temperature) and swollen glands (lymph nodes), may develop as well as the boil itself. A recurrent boil is known as chronic furunculosis.
Some people may experience itching before the boil develops. Boils are most commonly found on the buttocks, thighs, face, shoulders, back and underarms. If a boil develops on the ear this tends to cause pain to radiate across the ear, which gets worse when the ear is touched.
In some cases the boil may smell unpleasant, which is usually when the boil drains and this is caused by the existence of bacteria within the pus.
Causes of boils
In most cases boils are brought on by contamination of the hair follicles. This is caused by a type of bacteria, known as Staphylococcus aureus or staph, which lives on the surface of the skin. Bacteria are able to penetrate the follicles if there is a tiny cut in the skin and they can then cause an infection.
People who have health conditions that affect their immune system, people with diabetes, those with a poor diet lacking in vitamin E or A and individuals with poor hygiene have a higher risk of developing boils. But they can affect healthy, hygienic individuals too.
Using anti-perspirant may cause boils to affect the armpits and a chronic skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa can cause recurrent boils.
Treatment for boils
Most boils heal naturally within 7 days without any treatment. Bathing in warm water can work to ease pain associated with a boil, as well as accelerating the draining process. Once the boil has been drained of pus, it should be wiped clean and bandaged to prevent infection. If a doctor suspects that a patient with recurrent boils has a deficiency in vitamin A or E, they may advise them to take vitamin supplements.
In severe cases antibiotics may be prescribed, which may include topical or oral antibiotics, including dicloxacillin (Dynapen), cephalexin (Keflex) or erythromycin in cases where a patient is affected by penicillin-based medication.
Boils can be caused by MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which is a super-bug. If this is the case then Bactrim or other sulfa medication should be prescribed as soon as possible, because MRSA tends to accelerate the development of the infection.
Magnesium sulphate paste can help to reduce the size of the boil and prevent further infection when applied to the boil.
Prognosis for boils
Boils are usually mild and do not cause any complications. The outlook is generally positive with the vast majority of people making a full recovery, often without the need for any treatment.