Introduction and background
Bacterial infections or the inflammation of one or more hair follicles , as is quite common in acne, can result in the formation of a boil. A boil (furuncle) is an infection of a hair follicle. A follicle is where a hair forms (Most of the skin is covered with tiny hairs that grow out of hair follicles.) It is usually caused by a bacterium (germ) called Staphylococcus aureus. A boil looks like a small red lump on the skin that is tender. The surrounding skin may be swollen and inflamed. Pus (thick, infected fluid) fills the centre of the boil. They are usually painful and can be quite distressing, especially if they are recurring. Boils may occur anywhere on the body, but are most often found on the face, neck, armpits, buttocks and thighs. A boil often lasts about 14 days. However, it may even last longer if acne gets severe or is left untreated.
Symptoms & diagnosis
Typically, the first sign of boil is a bump or open sore that:
â¢ Grows quickly, often within 24 hours
â¢ Is red, yellow or white at the tip
â¢ Has drainage or pus as the boil breaks open
â¢ Is warm
â¢ Is tender or painful
Boils can occur anywhere on the skin, although they tend to develop on the face, neck, armpits, buttocks, or thighs. They also occur most frequently in areas containing hair and/or sweat glands, or in areas where chafing or recurrent friction occurs, thus a major cause of skin boils. In some cases, boils can occur in interconnected clusters called carbuncles. In severe cases, they can develop into abscesses.
Most boils can be adequately treated at home, and usually run their course and heal without medical attention. However, in some cases, you may need to visit a general health practitioner to avoid complications. Your doctor will simply examine the affected area to confirm diagnosis, and generally no other diagnostic tests are necessary.
The main cause of skin boils is generally due to an infection of a hair follicle, which can occur for a number of different reasons. Acne is also one of the common causes.
Other contributing causes of boils include:
â An ingrown hair
â A splinter or other piece of foreign material that has penetrated the skin
â Blocked sweat glands that become infected
â Chafing clothes
â Poor hygiene
â Malnutrition (Vitamin A or E deficiency in particular)
While anyone can develop boils and carbuncles, people who have diabetes, obesity, a suppressed immune system, poor hygiene, acne, or other skin problems are at a higher risk.
In addition, you have a higher risk of developing a boil or carbuncle if you have other skin conditions that may cause you to scratch and damage the skin, for example eczema or scabies.
Small boils may subside and go without any treatment.
Larger boils and carbuncles are best treated by letting the pus out. Sometimes this is done by a doctor who drains the pus using a needle and syringe. Sometimes a small cut in the skin is needed to let out the pus (‘incision and drainage’). The wound is covered with a dressing until the skin heals. The skin usually heals quickly once the pus has been drained. A course of antibiotics is sometimes prescribed in addition to draining the pus to help clear the infection from the skin.
If boils are a recurrent problem, your doctor may also suggest vitamin supplements (especially vitamin A and E) and tests may be done to determine if you have an underlying condition that may be compromising your immune system.
Skin boil treatment administered by self-care is usually the only treatment needed, as boils generally heal by themselves within 4 to 10 days.
You can ease pain by covering the boil with a flannel soaked in hot water. Do this for 30 minutes, 3-4 times a day. (Take care not to have the water too hot which may burn.)
Once the boil has drained, the area should be washed with antibacterial soap and kept bandaged and sterile, as the open wound may be susceptible to further infection.
You should not squeeze or attempt to pop a boil if it is hard and firm, as boils should only be drained once they have become soft or once a head has formed. It is recommended to leave the boil to burst on its own to reduce the spread of infection to other areas.
The one important thing to remember is that boils are most commonly related to low immune system functioning. By boosting the immune system, youâll be able to prevent boils and recurrent infections.
Herbs such as Echinacea purpurea, Astragalus membranaceous, Inula helenium and Withania somnifera are well-documented for their antiviral, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, as well as their ability to strengthen and assist the immune system. These herbs not only help to treat current infections, but work well as a preventative measure so that the boils do not reoccur.