Everyone has struggled with a boil or an abscess at some point in life. A boil or abscess is a type of skin infection that develops either in an oil gland or a hair follicle. It starts as a small, red, painful nodule (approximately half an inch in size) that forms under the skin.
Boils are smaller and superficial. Abscesses are larger and deeper than boils; they are filled with pus, warm to the touch, and accompanied by redness and pain in the adjoining area. If an infection that starts off as a boil under the skin spreads to the deeper skin tissues, it manifests itself in the form of an abscess.
Causes of Boils and Abscesses
Boils often occur on the neck, face, armpits, shoulders, buttocks, and eyes (sty). Boils can be very painful and sometimes may be accompanied by fever. If several boils occur together as a group, it is called a carbuncle and can be a sign of a more serious infection.
- Most boils are caused by a type of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus. Because the skin is our immune system’s first line of defense against bacteria and other foreign bodies, infections usually find their way into the body through a break in the skin.
- In some cases, boils develop when the skin gets broken due to a small injury or an insect bite, which gives the bacteria easy entry to lodge under the skin.
On the other hand, an abscess is similar to a pimple but larger and deeper under the skin.
- Abscesses are caused by minor breaks and punctures of the skin, obstruction of sweat and oil glands, and inflammation of hair follicles.
- The formation of pus is due to the body’s natural response to fight the infection. As the immune system is triggered with the onset of the bacteria, the body floods the infected area with white blood cells. The white blood cells are then localized and trapped along with the infecting bacteria and dead skin, forming the pus-filled boil.
Even though a boil or an abscess is a common occurrence and can affect any individual, certain people are more susceptible to these conditions.
Diseases, such as diabetes and kidney failure, as well as use of certain medications, such as cortisone and chemotherapy, often compromise the body’s immune system and diminish its efficacy in warding off these infections.
Signs and Symptoms of Boils and Abscesses
Common signs and symptoms of boils are:
- Painful red bump
- Swelling around the bump
- An increase in the size of the bump
- Accumulation of pus followed by the development of a yellow-white tip
In the case of skin abscess, the symptoms include:
- The affected skin feels firm and spongy due to the thick membrane around it and the pus within.
- It is usually painful.
- The surrounding skin appears reddish.
- Sometimes, you can even notice a pinpoint opening at the center, from where the pus might seep out.
Risk Factors Associated with Boils and Abscesses
Anyone can suffer from a boil or an abscess; however, there are certain factors that increase your risk. Such factors include:
- Close contact with a person who has a staph infection
- Skin problems (acne and eczema)
- Poor hygiene
- Poor nutrition
- Compromised immunity
- Exposure to harsh chemicals
According to a 2015 study published in the British Journal of General Practice, 10% of patients with a boil or an abscess often develop a repeat boil or abscess within a year. This can be due to obesity, diabetes, young age, smoking, and prescribed antibiotics.
When to See a Doctor
Usually boils and abscesses don’t require immediate emergency attention.
However, it is advisable to consult your doctor in the event that the pain and the pus don’t subside within a week or are accompanied by fever, swollen lymph nodes, increased pain and swelling, a persistent boil that keeps returning, or the appearance of more boils.
Also, have your boils checked by your doctor if you are diabetic, have immune system related problems, or are on immunosuppressants or chemotherapy.
In most cases, boils and abscesses can be managed at home quite promptly and with considerable ease. The trick is to soften the boil or the abscess such that a pustule develops on it, after which it can be meticulously lanced.
Handle the area hygienically to avoid further infection, which may spread if the discharge from the wound is not cleaned efficiently.
In the case of larger boils that usually contain several pockets of pus, it is recommended that professional help is sought for draining the infection. You should not cut or puncture your own boils as this can cause further damage.
Alternative Ways to Deal with Boils and Abscesses
Here are some natural home remedies for boils and abscesses.
1. Warm Washcloth Compress
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, applying heat in the form of a warm compress is the best way to treat boils at home.
A warm compress not only soothes the pain but also accelerates the healing process by softening the crusty skin layer of the boil, enabling the pus to travel to the surface and eventually drain the boil bursts after repeated soakings. The whole process usually takes 10 days.
Simple and efficient without any side effects, warm compress is perhaps the easiest remedy to follow. Plus, it is excellent for relieving the pain, swelling, and redness. It also stimulates blood circulation in the affected area, thereby increasing the number of white blood cells and antibodies to fight the infection.
- Dip a clean washcloth in warm water, wring out the excess water, and place the cloth over the boil for 10 minutes. You can also use warm salt water as salt acts as a disinfectant. Make sure the compress is wet and warm. Exert slight pressure on the boil when it forms a protruding head so that it will rupture with repeated soaking. Repeat the process 3–4 times a day until the boil heals.
- A warm shower can also prove useful in delivering the desired effect.
2. Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties that make it an important remedy for the treatment of skin problems like boils. Its antibacterial property can be attributed to the presence of compounds called terpenes.
Tea tree oil is also effective as a natural toner to rid the skin of excess oil, thereby preventing acne breakouts.
A 2006 study was published in Clinical Microbiology Reviews wherein researchers further advocate the long-held belief that tea tree oil has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Mix 5 drops of tea tree oil to 1 teaspoon of olive or coconut oil. Dip a clean cotton swab into the diluted oil and gently dab it directly on the boil. You do not need to rinse off the oil.
- Do this a few times a day for several days until the boil disappears.
Turmeric is widely regarded as a panacea for various health troubles and is aptly referred to as ‘’holy powder’’ in India. Eastern medicine has found much use of it in the treatment of a plethora of diseases, including skin problems.
Being a natural blood purifier and due to its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric works wonders in the treatment of boils.
Furthermore, it is also known to boost the immune system by increasing blood circulation to the infected area. This essentially means that an increased number of white blood cells are transmitted to the infected area via the bloodstream in order to combat the problem from within.
Much of turmeric’s healing properties can be attributed to its active compound called curcumin.
A review article published in the journal Phytotherapy Research in 2016 concluded that there is early evidence that suggests that products and supplements from turmeric may provide therapeutic benefits for skin problems, either when ingested or applied topically.
Both external application and consumption of turmeric help in the treatment of boils and carbuncles. External application of turmeric to the boils dries the boils within 3 to 4 days, alleviates the pain, and prevents the recurrence of boils.
- Boil 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder in 1 glass of milk or water. Drink this 3 times a day for 4–5 days. This will help heal the infection internally.
- Also, you can grind together equal amounts of fresh ginger and turmeric, apply the powder onto the boil, and cover the area with a clean cloth. Leave it for a few hours. Rinse the area and reapply the paste 3–4 times a day for several days.
4. Indian Lilac (Neem)
The various medicinal properties of neem help treat boils and many other types of skin infections.
It exhibits antibacterial properties, which means it can help fight the bacteria responsible for boils and abscesses.
Indian lilac also has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe the inflammation and pain associated with boils as well as minimize the spread of infection.
- Grind a handful of neem leaves to get a paste. Apply the paste on the affected area 3–4 times a day until the boil heals.
- Alternatively, you could boil a handful of neem leaves in 4 cups of water until the quantity of water reduces to one-third. Use this water to rinse the affected area a few times a day.
- Another option is to apply a few drops of neem oil (the one extracted from the seed is more effective) directly on the affected skin 3–4 times a day. Wash your hands thoroughly after the application. If you have sensitive skin, mix a few drops of neem oil in 1 tablespoon of coconut oil and then apply the mixture on the boil.
5. Castor Oil
Castor seed oil has been part of traditional medicine both in the West and in the East. In the Ayurvedic system of medicine, it has been used for the treatment of skin problems, infections, boils, and carbuncles.
Castor oil is rich in ricinoleic acid, which has potent antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties. This has been reported in a 2016 study published in Current Medicinal Chemistry.
When applied externally to the boil, it draws out the pus from the boil and relieves the pain.
- Dab a small amount of castor oil on a cotton ball.
- Apply it on the affected area.
- Repeat this several times daily until the boil disappears.
6. Maintain Hygiene
Even though the boil itself is not contagious, the bacteria that cause it and are present in the pus within it are. Thus, if the boil is not completely drained of the pus, the infection may spread to other parts of the body or to other people through skin-to-skin contact.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, proper hygiene is paramount when dealing with boils and abscesses.
Try to keep the area clean, and do not make the mistake of touching or rubbing the boil as it can increase the risk of infection.
When suffering from boils, you must religiously wash your hands every chance you get. Wash your hands with soap and running water for 10-15 seconds, especially before and after touching/dressing an infected area and before handling or eating food.
Also, wash your hands before and after applying medicines and remedies to the infection.
Always try to keep the affected area covered as much as possible. Especially if the boil bursts, cover it with a sterile bandage or gauze. This simple step will help prevent infection and aid in the healing process.
7. Epsom Salt
It is important to bear in mind that the use of Epsom salt in the treatment of boils is largely anecdotal and is not supported by any scientific study proving its efficacy. Nevertheless, it was found to be highly beneficial by many users in providing respite from boils and abscesses.
Fix up a bath or a compress using warm water and Epsom salt to reap its pharmacological benefits. Not only does it relax and rejuvenate the skin, but it also helps to bring the boil to a head, making it easier to draw out the pus.
- Dissolve ¼ cup of Epsom salt in 2 cups of warm water.
- Dip a clean washcloth in the solution and place it on your boil.
- Leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Repeat a few times daily until the boil begins to drain.
- To minimize the recurrence of boils, strengthen your immune system.
- Avoid eating sugar-rich foods as they raise your blood glucose levels and increase the risk of developing boils.
- Regularly sanitize all the washcloths and towels used for making warm compresses.
- Do not squeeze or pick boils.
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing, and athletic equipment with others.
- Drainage of boils or abscesses is a clinical task and should only be performed by a doctor or trained nurse or health worker.
- Regularly change washcloths and towels used for bathing.
- Do not squeeze or pick boils.
- Avoid using antiperspirants because they block the sweat glands, which can cause boils to develop.
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