Carbuncles: When a Boil is More Than Just a Single Boil

Boils are red, warm-to-the-touch abscesses on the skin, generally on the armpits, face, neck, thighs, groin and buttocks-any area of the body that has a great deal of hair. It usually takes about 1 – 2 weeks for a boil to run its course. It starts out as a red, tender area and will grow in size and harden as fluid collects underneath it. Boils can become quite painful because of the pressure of the fluid collected below the skin. Just prior to bursting, boils will soften and develop a white or yellow ‘head.’ Applying warm compresses to the region will help to minimize pain and enable the area to ‘ripen.’ After the boil bursts and all of the fluid drains out, this often brings immediate pain relief and precipitates healing of the area.

Carbuncle? What in the world is that?

Carbuncles occur when a series of boils form, meaning that the condition has advanced to a more serious and potentially dangerous condition. Except in rare cases, carbuncles almost always require medical attention and may take up to a full month to completely heal. Since carbuncles are numerous connected boils, there are often several pockets of fluid which all require draining. If they don’t drain on their own, a doctor will have to lance them and pack them with gauze, and will usually prescribe antibiotics to prevent further infection or get rid of a stubborn infection.

Signs that it’s more than just a simple boil

1) A fever develops

2) The boil has burst but still doesn’t seem to be heal

3) The infection appears to have spread, creating new abscesses

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4) The skin has red streaks or become hard, thick, leathery and rough

5) There is an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, cancer, etc.

What causes boils and carbuncles?

Boils are usually caused by an infection of the surrounding hair follicle. A small nick in the skin caused by scratching or skin rubbing together allows the boil-causing bacteria to enter the skin. In individuals with acne or similar conditions, boils also have a chance of developing because of blocked sweat glands that become infected.

Don’t make a bad situation worse

One thing to remember about boils and carbuncles: never, ever squeeze them in attempt to burst them yourself. This can cause the infection to spread inside the body, deep in the skin, causing a possibly life-threatening condition. This can cause the bacteria to enter the bloodstream, resulting in sepsis, a systemic infection that causes organ failure and eventually death. If after a week or so a boil doesn’t seem to ‘come to a head’ on its own and burst, then you will need to visit your physician.

Whenever a person cares for someone with a boil or carbuncle, they need to ensure that their hands are washed thoroughly after coming into contact with fluid from the boil. The bacteria are extremely contagious and can even cause food poisoning, if it comes into contact with food. The infected person needs to carefully launder every article of clothing that has come into contact with the fluid as well, and use hot water and bleach, if possible.

Yuck! What’s that smell?

The pus released from boils is composed of white blood cells, blood, dead skin and bacteria. Staphylcoccus aureus is a strain of bacteria that normally lives on the skin and is often the source of boils and carbuncles. When boils and carbuncles drain, a putrid odor is sometimes emitted. This is caused by the gases produced by the bacteria, but will cease once the infection begins to clear up.

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How can they be prevented?

Some individuals are more susceptible to developing boils than others; these people include those with poor immune systems, diabetes, poor hygiene habits and vitamin A and E deficiencies, although anyone can develop one, no matter how healthy or clean. Even though nothing is foolproof, practicing adequate hand-washing, showering regularly, and staying as healthy as possible can help lessen the chances of developing boils or carbuncles.

Boils and carbuncles are rarely life-threatening and often heal on their own with no medical intervention. Ensuring good hygiene habits and staying healthy can help prevent boils, but not necessarily guarantee that none will ever form. If a person does happen to develop a boil-or carbuncle-as long as it’s properly cared for, the infection should clear up in a short amount of time, with no complications. With little more than some draining and a possible course of antibiotics, the person should be back to their old self in no time.