Boils are skin infections that start in compromised skin and our hair follicles.
They appear as pus-filled bumps under the surface of the skin.
Boils could be relatively minor or dangerous enough to cause blood poisoning (sepsis) in rare cases.
Our bodies are constantly fighting infection.
Usually, white blood cells have the situation under control and will kill off infectious bacteria before they attack.
But sometimes, infections sneak past our defenses.
What causes boils?
The typical cause of boils is the staphylococcus aureus bacteria. This bacteria is a normal part of the human flora.
It can reside on humans without a negative effect.
When the skin barrier is compromised by irritation or an injury, the s. aureus bacteria can travel to the deeper layers of our skin and cause infections.
This is when it becomes harmful.
There are several factors that could make us susceptible to a boil infection.
Some people are more at risk than others.
If you have a compromised immune system, diabetes, or other skin conditions, you are more likely to have a boil infection than someone with better immune strength.
How do I know if my boil is dangerous?
Self-diagnosis is usually not the best route, but there are some exceptions to this rule.
Boils are quite common and rarely dangerous.
They are expected to come and go on their own.
With some observation, you can determine the severity of your boil. Here are some complications to
look out for:
Swollen lymph nodes
Swollen lymph nodes are usually indicative of a bacterial or viral infection.
Lymph nodes are the glands where white blood cells, the cells responsible for killing bacteria, are stored.
When too much debris (such as bacteria and dead cells) floods the lymphatic system, the nodes get clogged and start to swell.
If you notice lymph nodes swelling up, it could mean that more bacteria than expected has entered your system.
The most common sites of swelling include the armpits, on either side of the neck, above the collarbone, and on either side of the groin.
If you start to present other signs of an infection such as high fever, then the cause of your boil may be a bit more serious.
Fevers are usually classified as a body temperature above 100.4°F (38°C) in babies and 99–99.5°F (37.2–37.5°C) in adults.
Note that the presence of boils and a fever at the same time may not be related.
However, it’s recommended that you seek the opinion of a doctor.
Red streaks around the site of infection
Bacteria spread easily once it gets into the body.
If you see red streaks around your boil, it could mean that the infection is moving along a lymph vessel.
At this point, it becomes another level of infection called lymphangitis.
This is an inflammation in not just one lymph gland, but in a network of them.
If you suspect lymphangitis, it is very important that you seek medical help.
This infection presents similarly to sepsis which is blood poisoning.
Even though sepsis is rare, it won’t hurt to consult a medical professional.
Boils are usually painful.
However, excessive pain is not normal.
If it becomes too intense to bear, seek professional care.
You may be given treatment to soothe the pain, or the pus could be drained.
The boil refuses to rupture
Boils are expected to form and drain within five to seven days.
If a boil hasn’t ruptured after a week, you may need antibiotics or a simple procedure to extract the pus.
Do not attempt to puncture your skin and drain the pus by yourself.
You could infect the surrounding area, or worse, force the bacteria deeper into your tissues.
Instead, consult a physician.
More boils/formation of carbuncles
Carbuncles are clusters of boils that are connected under the skin’s layers.
They often develop in hairy areas where bacteria has enough hair follicles for attachment.
Carbuncles can become quite painful and discolored.
These clusters are also less likely to go away on their own.
If you start to notice more than one boil forming in the same location, seek medical help immediately.
That area will have to be drained and treated to prevent the formation of more boils.
While boils are common, they shouldn’t be recurring in the same person.
If you (almost) always have a boil, this could be a sign of a weakened immune system.
This means that your body’s defenses are down and you’re open to infection.
Consult a physician to determine the root of the problem.
Special note: If you have a compromised immune system, you should always seek medical assistance when you notice a skin infection.
You should treat all issues before they have the chance to become something dangerous.
How do I confirm that my boil IS a boil?
There are several skin infections that can present as boils.
Some of them may be more dangerous and require specific treatment.
To confirm that your boil is just that; a boil, follow its lifecycle.
The following timeline should be expected from a boil.
If you notice something odd, consult a physician for a physical exam.
- On the first day of visible irritation, the infected area turns red.
- Within the first three days, a lump starts to form under the skin.
- After four to seven days, the lump starts to form a white tip. This is caused by the collection of pus under the skin.
- Between five to seven days, the lump ruptures and the pus is drained.
Within this period, you can expect to feel an itch or uncomfortable pressure on the boil or surrounding skin.
You may also feel some pain.
If you start to experience any unbearable symptoms or anything outside of the above listed, you may have a different type of skin infection.
What to do if you’re concerned about a boil
Boils usually don’t require medication or emergency care.
However, if you become uncomfortable or suspicious of your symptoms, please consult a physician.
You will be taken through a physical examination and possibly blood tests.
Boils are treatable, so you have no cause to worry.