All of us have suffered from boil at least once in our lifetime. It is an infection, caused usually by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus affecting the hair follicles and surrounding sweat glands. This causes the formation of a pus-filled swelling known as an abscess.
A boil is also called furuncle. Another common term is carbuncle which is a cluster of boils clumped together in a group of hair follicles.
The common site of a boil is a hairy area of the skin, especially where there is friction or sweat. Usually, they are seen on the armpits, face, neck, buttocks, arms and anus. It can even appear in the ear canal.
Boils can happen at any age. However, teenagers and young adults are particularly susceptible, while children are less at risk. There are some factors that, if present, can increase the likelihood of having a boil or carbuncle.
Having a poor immune system, underlying diseases like diabetes and broken skin due to health conditions (e.g. scabies, eczema) are all causes that can precipitate boils. Failure to maintain proper hygiene, inadequate nutrition and obesity are also significant risk factors.
Some people with boils show a tendency for frequent infection. It there are three or more attacks of boils in one year, the doctor will call it recurrent.
In the case of recurrent boils, there are usually some underlying conditions. For example, this can be a symptom of uncontrolled diabetes, especially in people over 40 years of age. It can also signal poor immunity from some other causes.
If the patient is otherwise healthy but still has recurrent boils, this may be a case of the staphylococcal carrier state.
In this situation, the person or his/her family member(s) harbour a certain number of culprit bacteria in the skin without any apparent symptoms. Following a break in the skin for any reason, this bacterium may invade the area and start the process of making boils.
How to manage a boil?
There are some home remedies we can use. First and foremost, we must not try to pop the boil. This is a common habit, but it does not solve anything, rather it causes the infection to spread and leads to permanent scarring.
We have to keep the infected area clean and dry. Another thing we can practise is applying a hot compress to the affected area. A flannel cloth can be soaked in hot water (caution: not so hot that it may burn the skin). Then this is used to cover the boil for half an hour. This can be done 3-4 times every day, each time with a new piece of cloth.
Boils usually go away on their own. After a week or so, it generally bursts and the pus will leak out. The pain will go away after that. Once the pus is cleared, the surrounding infection also subsides in a few days and everything will turn back to normal.
However, if the boil is recurrent or if the pain is excruciating or there is a carbuncle or other severe issues, it is best to consult a doctor. Avoid using antibiotics without a prescription.