The Difference Between Boils and Carbuncles

What's the difference between boils and carbuncles?

Boils, also called furuncles and carbuncles, are skin abscesses that occur when too much pus builds up under the skin or in hair follicles and skin tissues. Furuncles are carbuncles are similar but have a few differences, with carbuncles being less common than boils. Let's understand the difference between boils and carbuncles:

Both can be quite painful as the lumps rapidly fill with pus growing larger until they rupture and drain. The major difference between a boil and a carbuncle is that a boil is a single abscess that occurs within a hair follicle whereas a carbuncle is a cluster of boils lumped together across a number of hair follicles.

What is a Boil or Furuncle?

A boil or furuncle is a painful pink or red bump on the skin that develops rapidly. The skin around the boil is typically very tender, red, and inflamed and when it starts is roughly the size of a pea. Boils generally show up in places where hair follicles are present and where sweat and friction occur such as the face, neck, breast, buttocks, and thighs. Boils tend to grow over a few days and can reach the size of a baseball.

Boils tend to disappear on their own and generally do not leave any scars. Since a boil is a singular bump, it has one small opening that fills up with pus. Once the yellow-white tip ruptures, pus is discharged and the boil decreases in size and disappears. A boil may simply go away without any intervention or may burst on its own within a couple of days. Occasionally it may take up to three weeks for a boil to discharge its pus and diminish.

What is a Carbuncle?

When the infection from a boil spreads to the surrounding hair follicles, a series of bumps called a carbuncle occurs. Since carbuncles cover a wider area, they tend to be more painful than boils and take longer to develop. They go deeper into the skin and therefore take a longer time to heal.

Depending on the severity of the carbuncle, they can also leave scars on the body. Since the infection is across many hair follicles, a carbuncle has several openings that are filled with pus.

A carbuncle can measure up to four inches across and, though more painful, is less common than a boil. They typically occur on the back, thighs, and back of the neck and tend to affect males more frequently than females, particularly men who are older and have weakened immune systems.

The most common cause of a carbuncle is Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that is frequently found on the skin. Since this infection is more widespread, a slight fever may accompany it along with a general feeling of being run down.

Causes of Carbuncles and Boils

The difference between boils and carbuncles: The skin on our bodies is covered with hair follicles. We live in a world filled with bacteria and sometimes bacteria can become trapped around the follicles. When this happens, inflammation and infection can occur. Both boils and carbuncles are a result of these bacterial infections.

When a bacterial infection occurs, our immune systems respond by sending white blood cells to fight the infection. Pus results when the bacteria, white blood cells, and skin cells die off.

Some conditions can increase the risk of developing boils and carbuncles:

  • Diabetes. High blood sugar and high glucose levels reduce your immune system's ability to fight infection
  • Certain medications can weaken your immune system
  • Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis can increase the risk of developing boils and carbuncles
  • HIV and other conditions that weaken the immune system
  • Obesity
  • Contact with a person with a staph infection.

How to Treat Boils and Carbuncles

The difference between boils and carbuncles: Boils and carbuncles are generally easy to treat on your own. Severe infections may require the help of a dermatologist but there are a few at home treatments to rid yourself of a minor infection.

  • Keep the infected area clean by washing gently several times daily
  • Apply over-the-counter creams or prescription antibiotic cream to the affected area
  • Apply hot compresses over the infection for ten minutes to encourage dilation of the skin and to help the pus rise to the surface of the skin
  • More severe infections may require a doctor's intervention. Physicians will generally lance the abscess with a needle and prescribe antibiotics.

It's important to note that infections from boils and carbuncles can be spread to other people and to other parts of the body. In some cases, it can cause a secondary infection such as cellulitis. In rare cases, bacteria can enter your bloodstream and cause blood poisoning (sepsis) or lead to deep infections within the body.

Keeping a sterile bandage over the infection will help prevent spreading and quell the desire to pick at or squeeze the boil or carbuncle. If the abscess is accompanied by a fever or does not diminish within two weeks, you should seek medical help.

Last Reviewed:
July 11, 2017
Last Updated:
October 18, 2017
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