Boils look like really big pimples and are pus-filled abscesses. They can be the size of a kernel of corn or grow bigger than a golf ball. Often, they are warmer than the skin around them. Boils form in skin infected by:
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Group A streptococcus1
Some people believe any skin boil is related to a spider bite due to the fact that many spider bites on the internet resemble a boil from MRSA or group A Strep. In reality, boils are much more likely to be from a skin infection than a spider bite.
If someone else in your home has a boil, the best way for you to avoid them is to stay clean. Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap.
If you can’t wash your hands for some reason, use an antibacterial hand cleaner. Do not share clothes, bedding, or towels and washcloths with people who have boils.
First Aid for Boils
The presence of a boil means the infection’s already there. The trick now is to let it heal and not make it worse.
The boil will develop more pressure until it bursts and drains the pus. It should heal after that (sometimes it heals without developing a white head, but that’s rare).
There are things you can do to encourage boils to heal and things you don’t want to do, which will make them worse.2
Do keep skin boils clean: The immune system needs to focus on the infection that’s already there. Adding more bacteria will make it harder to fight the infection. Don’t bother with antibacterial soaps and cleaners; any soap is fine.
Do cover it with clean, dry dressings: The idea is to contain any drainage. Boils are hotbeds of bacteria and easily spread to other areas and other people. Change dressings frequently, especially if it’s oozing. Seal dressings in a bag before throwing the away.
Do wash your hands: Anytime you touch a boil or change a dressing, wash your hands with warm water and soap. If you don’t have the ability to wash your hands completely with warm water and soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used in a pinch.
Do place a warm, moist cloth on your boil: Heat encourages the formation of pus and might help the boil break, drain, and heal. Place a warm compress on the boil several times a day. Remember to use each cloth only once and wash it in hot water.
Don’t pop or lance it: Most boils will burst and drain on their own, but sometimes a healthcare worker needs to lance one so it’ll heal. This is not a do-it-yourself skill. Done incorrectly or with contaminated tools, lancing will result in a bigger boil or a spreading infection.
Don’t share: Keep your bedding, clothes, washcloths, and towels to yourself. Wash all contaminated bedding, towels, and clothing (anything that came in contact with the boil) in very hot water.
When to See a Doctor
See a doctor for boils on the face, around the eye, or near the spine.
Boils usually heal in a couple of weeks. If it isn’t healing on its own by the first week, it’s time to see the doctor.
One boil that heals all by itself isn’t really a big problem. Several boils, either in clusters or occurring one after the other, warrant a trip to the doctor.
You can also go see the doc if your boil is really big—think more brussels sprout than corn kernel—or if the pain is severe or unbearable.
If the boil has red streaks running out of it or if you develop a fever or chills, go see your doctor or go to the hospital.