When To Seek Treatment for Boils

What Are Boils?

A boil or skin abscess is an infection of a hair follicle caused, most often, by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus.  A tender red bump which usually starts quite small, a boil may also be surrounded by swollen and inflamed skin.  The center of the boil becomes soft and fills with pus and the area can become quite sore. They appear particularly in areas where there is friction or where the skin is sweaty.  The most common areas for boils are the neck and face, arms and armpits, buttocks and around the anus.  Boils can occur in anyone at any age; however, they tend to appear more commonly in teens and young adults.

Can I Treat A Boil At Home?

Self-care at home would include the application of warm compresses to the boil and soaking it in warm water.  Not only does this decrease the pain but it also helps to draw the pus to the surface.  The boil will burst after it comes to a head.  Once the boil starts to drain, wash the area with an antibacterial soap until all the pus is gone.  By washing the area frequently and using warm compresses, the wound usually heals well.  A medicated ointment and bandage will encourage healing and help to prevent infection.  It is not advisable to lance the boil with a needle at home.  This can lead to worsening of the infection.

When To Seek Medical Attention

Generally, boils will burst, drain and subside on their own, without any outside medical treatment.  There are, however, times when medical treatment should be sought in order to avoid complications. If the skin around the boil turns red and streaks appear, or the pain becomes severe, or if a second boil appears, the attention of a doctor is advised. 

There are certain health conditions which, if present, would also suggest medical attention for a boil.  A heart murmur, diabetes, immune system problems or taking medications to suppress the immune system signal the need for professional treatment if a boil develops.   If health is poor and a high fever and chills develop along with this infection, a trip to the emergency department is needed.  The doctors can then perform an examination, diagnose the situation and prescribe treatment.

If the boil is large, or any of the above circumstances are present, the health-care provider may need to open and drain the boil and dress the wound.  A culture may be taken to determine the type of bacteria causing the infection and a course of antibiotics may be recommended.