Bumps that appear on the body can be hard for the average person to detect. Is it a pimple? A boil? A mosquito bite? Dr. Amy Espy-Smith, the area medical director for Concentra, an urgent-care clinic with multiple locations in Maryland, talks about how to distinguish a boil from other bumps.
What is a boil and what causes it?
A boil is also known as a skin abscess. This localized infection usually is tender and red in the beginning and can become firm, hard and increasingly painful. Eventually a collection of pus is formed in the skin and it is composed of white blood cells, bacteria and proteins.
There are various types of boils: Furuncle is a boil that occurs within a hair follicle; pilonidal cyst is an abscess that occurs in the crease of the buttocks near hair follicles; hidradenitis suppurativa involves multiple abscesses that form under the armpits and often in the groin area; cystic acne is formed when oil ducts become infected and is commonly found on the face.
Boils can be caused by an ingrown hair, a foreign material stuck in the skin such as a splinter, and also clogged sweat glands.
How is a boil different from pimple?
Pimples are caused by a blockage in a hair follicle. They usually affect the face, chest or back where oil glands become overactive and clog follicles.
How can you distinguish a boil from a pimple?
Boils can often resemble a pimple but boils are dome-shaped, red and tender to touch and look like raised bumps. Pimples are typically smaller, and not as painful.
Where are common places for boils to appear?
Boils are usually found on the back of the neck, face, armpits and buttocks, but can happen wherever hair grows on the body, or in areas where skin is irritated from constant friction.
How do you treat boils?
Typically, home treatment is adequate for most boils. The heat from the warm moist washcloth increases circulation to the area, thus bringing antibodies and white blood cells to the site of infection to assist the body in fighting the infection. Occasionally a boil may require an incision and drainage procedure and possibly an antibiotic. Once the abscess is drained, pain is significantly improved.
Boils are not completely preventable but there are some things that may help. Good hygiene and the use of antibacterial soap can help prevent bacterial buildup on the skin and reduce the likelihood of hair follicles becoming infected. In addition, an abrasive brush used over the body can help break up oil plugs that can form around hair follicles. Pilonidal cysts can be prevented by avoiding direct pressure on the area if a hair follicle becomes infected.
When should someone seek medical attention for a boil?
Typically, boils resolve on their own, but there are circumstances when one should seek medical attention. If a patient has an underlying illness or takes medications that can impair or be associated with a weakened immune system, or they are diabetic, they should see a health care professional.
A pilonidal cyst is a boil that is a special circumstance and typically requires medical intervention with incision, drainage and packing with gauze to ensure continued draining.
You should see doctor if a boil gets very painful or gets worse; gets better, but then comes back; is accompanied by a fever; is on the face or spine.
Is it OK to pop a boil?
Do not squeeze or pop a boil, as it can spread infection.