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Health

What causes boils?

22 January 2020 in Health

We all get spots from time to time, but if you’ve got a large, swollen or painful lump on your skin then it may be a boil.

A boil is usually caused by an infection of a hair follicle. In most cases, the infection is due to the bacterium staph (staphylococcus aureus).

Staph is common and can live on your body without causing you any harm. In fact, studies show that up to 30% of healthy adults carry staph in their noses, and 20% on their skin.

However, staph can work its way into your skin via cuts and grazes, sometimes triggering a skin infection and a boil.

Boils can also be caused by a relatively uncommon skin disease called hidradenitis suppurativa.

Where do you find boils?

Boils normally form in areas where there is growing hair, friction and moisture. It’s common to find them in places like your armpits, neck or thighs.

Note: Boils can occur anywhere on your body, but if a boil forms in your ears, on your face, nose or near your spine, see a doctor. Boils in any of these locations can lead to serious complications.

Can anyone get a boil?

Studies show that boils are most common in teenagers and young adults, but they can affect anyone at any time. You’re more likely to get a boil if you have a weakened immune system or suffer from a skin condition like eczema, which can encourage you to scratch and damage your skin.

Other risk factors include:

  • being overweight or obese
  • having type 2 diabetes
  • playing contact sports such as rugby, wrestling or American football
  • having an illness that makes you generally weak and unwell
  • living in an overcrowded or unhygienic environment

What’s the difference between a spot and a boil?

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a spot and a boil. Both begin as a tender, red lump and can develop white heads as they fill with pus. However, there are a few important differences:

  1. Boils tend to be caused by a bacterial infection, while spots can develop when your pores get blocked by dirt or oil.
  2. Boils are often larger and more painful than a spot, and more likely to occur in areas with hair.

If you discover a blemish and you’re not sure whether it’s a spot or a boil, speak to a pharmacist. They can help you identify the problem and recommend an appropriate treatment.

How are boils treated?

Although very large or persistent boils may need to be treated by a doctor, most boils clear up on their own. You may be able to speed up the process by holding a warm, moist compress to the affected area for 10 minutes 3 or 4 times a day. It can take anything from a few days to a few weeks for a boil to clear up on its own, but it’s important to be patient and let your skin heal. Squeezing a boil can spread the infection or cause permanent scarring.

If you think you’ve got a boil and are worried about it - or it keeps coming back - see a doctor.


References:

Boils and carbuncles [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Complications of boils and carbuncles - HSE.ie [Internet]. HSE.ie. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

British Association of Dermatologists - Patient Information Leaflets (PILs) [Internet]. Bad.org.uk. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Boils, carbuncles, and staphylococcal carriage - NICE CKS [Internet]. Cks.nice.org.uk. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Staphylococcus aureus Infections - Infections - MSD Manual Consumer Version [Internet]. MSD Manual Consumer Version. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Tidy D. Boils, Carbuncles and Furunculosis | Causes and Treatment [Internet]. Patient.info. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Boils, carbuncles, and staphylococcal carriage - NICE CKS [Internet]. Cks.nice.org.uk. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Boil vs. Pimple: Tips for Identification [Internet]. Healthline. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Acne - Causes [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Boils - Your.MD [Internet]. Your.MD. 2020 [cited 20 January 2020]. Available here.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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