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Boils

3-minute read

What are boils?

Boils are painful, red, pus-filled lumps in your skin caused by an infection of hair follicles. One infected hair follicle is a furuncle, and a group of infected follicles joined together is a carbuncle. They can occur anywhere, but most often in hairy areas that sweat or rub, such as your face, neck, armpits, groin and buttocks.

You can look after small boils on your own, but you may need to see your doctor for treatment of large boils. If a boil becomes worse or spreads or you develop a fever, you should see your doctor.

What are the symptoms of boils?

Symptoms include:

  • a red lump with a white or yellow centre
  • pain
  • feeling unwell and having fevers, particularly with a large boil
A photo showing a boil along a man's jawline
A photo showing a boil along a man's jawline

What are the causes of boils?

Boils are usually caused by infection with the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. This bacteria usually lives on your skin without causing harm, but can infect hair follicles if the skin is broken. The infection can spread to other parts of your body, or to other people.

Anyone can develop a boil. You are more at risk if:

An illustration showing a healthy hair follicle on the left, compared to one infected on the right. Leading to a pus filled lump.
An illustration showing a healthy hair follicle on the left, compared to one infected on the right. Leading to a pus filled lump.

How are boils treated?

Boils should be kept clean and covered.

Pus needs to drain before a boil will heal. This may happen by itself, but sometimes treatment is needed.

For small boils, you can put a warm compress on the boil several times a day. This may help the pus to drain.

For larger boils and carbuncles (larger than 5cm), see your doctor. They may need to make a cut in the boil to help the pus drain, and you may need antibiotics. Large boils and carbuncles can scar.

See your doctor if the boil is on your face, if it is getting worse quickly, if it is very painful or if it hasn’t healed in 2 weeks.

What not to do

It is important not to squeeze or pop boils, as this can be very painful and can spread the infection.

Looking after yourself

If you have boils, you can help them heal more quickly and prevent them from spreading if you:

  • wash your hands regularly, especially after touching your boil
  • eat well and bath or shower regularly
  • keep any skin cuts clean and protected
  • don’t share personal items such as razors or towels
  • wash clothes, linen and towels in hot water

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Last reviewed: March 2021


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Boils - Better Health Channel

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