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The medical name for a boil is a furuncle. It is an abscess that forms at the bottom of a hair follicle when infected by a particular type of bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus.
When more than one hair follicle is affected, this forms a multi-headed abscess called a carbuncle. If the infection spreads beyond the area of the hair follicle, a serious infection called cellulitis can occur. You will need antibiotics to treat this condition successfully.
Boils are common in adolescents and may also be spread from person to person due to skin contact. People with undiagnosed medical conditions are also more likely to develop these skin infections, so it is important to get help whenever you suspect you have a boil or any bacterial skin infection.
A boil starts out as being tender in the infected area. It then becomes swollen, hot and painful. The infection may ‘come to a head’ where a yellow coloured top bursts through the skin, releasing pus. It may also subside over a few days, leaving the skin tender but intact. Boils and carbuncles that burst generally leave a scar and may recur in the same spot or in nearby hair follicles.
A boil that has come to a head may be pierced (lanced) with a sterile needle, allowing the pus and infected tissue to be released. Care must be taken not to put pressure on the boil as this may push the infection into the surrounding tissue. A single boil may be treated with antiseptic creams and thorough cleansing of the surrounding area with antiseptic skin cleansers.
If boils recur or a carbuncle develops, then it is best to see your doctor, as you may need suitable antibiotics to stop the infection recurring or getting worse. Some people find that shaving hairy areas leads to boils developing repeatedly, so care must be taken when using razors or shavers to prevent reinfection. It may be helpful to use an antiseptic preparation when shaving in order to prevent boils.
If you have had a boil, or believe that you or your family have a skin infection, see your community pharmacist as they can provide you with products to treat or prevent infection. They can also tell you if you need to see your doctor in order to get antibiotics for your skin infection, or if you may be at risk of medical conditions that result in increased infection.