Like boils, carbuncles are the result of the infection of hair follicles.  A bacterium, or germ, called staphylococcus aureus is responsible for the infection itself.  A carbuncle can be likened to a "multiple boil" since it is a condition which occurs when several hair follicles in close proximity become infected.

What is a carbuncle?

Regarded as an abscess, and larger than a boil, a carbuncle usually has several openings through which pus drains onto the skin.  As staphylococcus aureus is contagious, carbuncles may spread to other parts of the body and also to other people.  They most commonly appear on the back or the nape of the neck and are more frequently found on men than women.  There are several possible causes for carbuncles and while the direct cause cannot usually be determined, some possibilities are poor hygiene, weakened immune system, and irritation or friction caused by clothing.

Ranging in size from that of a pea all the way to a golf ball, a carbuncle may be inflamed, irritated and red, and be painful to the touch.  It may grow quickly and have a yellow or white pus-filled center which may crust or weep and then spread to other areas of the body.  Other symptoms which may accompany the abscess include feeling sick, uncomfortable, fatigued and/or feverish.  Occasionally a carbuncle may be itchy as it develops.

Treatment of carbuncles

In order to treat them, carbuncles usually are drained.  Such drainage can occur naturally, without intervention in less than two weeks.  It won't heal until it has drained, and sometimes just placing a warm, wet cloth on it can help the process along.  Squeezing, cutting or opening the carbuncle without medical assistance can lead to a worsening and spreading of the infection.

Should the carbuncle last longer than two weeks, if it recurs frequently, appears on the spine or on the face, or if there are side effects such as fever, treatment is needed.  A physician may recommend an antibacterial soap and antibiotics either used topically or orally, to address the situation.  If the lesion is large and/or deep, it should be treated by a health professional.

Proper hygiene is a must

As with any infection, proper hygiene is imperative.  Wash your hands frequently, especially after contact with a carbuncle.   Don't share towels, washcloths or bedding and be sure to dispose of bandages effectively by disposing of them in a tightly sealed bag.

Proper care and forethought can be a major tool in healing these painful lesions.