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Boils: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Boils also known as skin abscesses or furuncles are a painful skin infection that starts in a hair follicle or oil gland. It is usually found in places that combine hair, sweat and friction like the inner thighs, armpit, buttocks, face, neck and eyelid (Sty/Stye)

Carbuncle= when several boils grow close to each other in a group

This happens when a germ (staphylococcus bacteria) normally found on the skin (and not harmful) enters the body through a cut or scrape. The body’s defense system (white blood cells) rush in to kill the bacteria. The infected area starts becoming red, then becomes filled up with pus made up of dead skin cell, dead white cells and dead bacteria.

Anyone can develop a boil at any time. However some factors makes one more likely to have boils:

  • A weakened immune system: e.g. untreated HIV, cancer, or other illnesses especially skin infections
  • Diabetes
  • Poor nutrition
  • Poor hygiene
  • Close contact with someone infected
  • Skin becomes swollen, hard and painful
  • Can range from very small to very big
  • The boil becomes softer and more painful and a the center becomes whitish or yellowish

Boils usually do not need medical attention. However you need to see a doctor if:

  • You have a fever
  • You have a second boil appearing
  • You have recurring boils
  • You have a boil on your face
  • The boil does not drain

A doctor usually diagnoses a boil just by looking at it. He may however ask you a few questions and send a sample to the laboratory if the boil is resistant to treatment.

Most boils can be managed at home with warm compresses.

  • Soak a cloth (e.g. a face towel) in warm water
  • Squeeze excess water
  • Place the cloth on the boil for about 10-20 mins 3-4 times a day. This will help the boil rupture and drain naturally. 
  • Drain, clean with an antibacterial soap and cover with a clean bandage or gauze.
  • Wash your hands to avoid spreading it to other parts of your body
  • Change dressing 2-3 times a day and whenever it becomes wet/dirty
  • You might need to take a painkiller like paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease the pain (read labels and respect doses)

In case the boil refuses to drain, you go to a nearby clinic. There they may:

  • Do an sterile incision and drainage
  • Prescribe antibiotics (especially in the case of recurring boils) to be taken orally for about 1-2 months

Medsafety tip: complete the course of your antibiotic even after the boil finishes.

  • Some boils can become very serious
  • Larger boils and carbuncles can leave scars.
  • DO NOT pop the boil with a needle
  • Resist the urge to squeeze the boil when it is not ‘ready’ or as we say locally ‘ripe’
  • Personal hygiene
  • Staying healthy (keeps your immune system in form)
  • Regular hand washing
  • Proper washing and ironing of items used by someone who had a boil

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Ekwoge Hilda

Dr. Ekwoge Hilda is a trained pharmacist from Cameroon and Co-founder of HILPharma. When she is not busy creating content, she slings pills to pay the bills.

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