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What causes boils?

With a little knowledge, boils can be prevented.

What Causes Boils

People who suffer from boils can sometimes prevent or treat them by becoming educated about what causes boils. Boils are painful infected sores on the skin that are filled with pus. Often a type of bacteria can overpower the bodys defenses in several ways that directly causes them.

A boil usually begins as a small, red, painful bump, similar to a pimple. In about 24 hours, the boil will rapidly increase in size and develop a white head. At this time, pus fills the boil, making it quite painful to the touch. Pus is a mixture of white blood cells, bacteria and dead skin cells. A person with a boil may also experience fatigue, fever, a general feeling of discomfort or swollen lymph nodes in the immediate area. Sometimes before a boil emerges, the skin may itch.


Boils usually develop because of bacteria infecting hair follicles on the skin. Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, is a bacteria commonly found on the skin, in the mouth, nose, genitals and rectum. Boils can also be caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. When this type of bacteria causes a boil, the sore is called a carbuncle or a furuncle. These bacteria are usually harmless unless the skin is penetrated through an injury, such as a cut or a scrape. A boil can also form when there is a foreign object, like a splinter, in the skin. Anytime the skin is punctured, there is an opportunity for staph to invade. Occasionally, friction such as skin rubbing together or tight clothing rubbing on skin can irritate a hair follicle, causing an ingrown hair. This will cause the hair follicle to swell. When this happens, bacteria can be trapped inside the follicle and cause an infection that results in a boil.

Because staph is contagious, any person who lives with someone who has a boil or other staph infection has a higher risk of getting a boil. A person with a boil should be careful not to come in close contact or share personal care items such as clothing, towels, washcloths or razors with others. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, men get more boils than women.

Moist Areas

Bacteria thrive in wet environments. Therefore, moist places on the body such as the armpits, groin, buttocks, thighs and back of the neck are likely places for a boil to develop. Using special care to keep these areas clean and dry will reduce the likelihood of developing a boil. When a boil appears in the crease of the buttocks, this is called a pilonidal cyst. These often require medical treatment. In addition, multiple boils appearing in the groin or armpit are called Hidradenitis suppurativa.

Chronic Illnesses

Some chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, kidney disease and liver disease raise a persons risk of developing boils. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing boils because the disease makes it more difficult for the body to fight off infections. For the same reason, people with a compromised immune system, poor nutrition or exposure to harsh chemicals may be more susceptible to boils.

Other Skin Conditions

Some skin conditions, such as acne and dermatitis, raise the risk of boils because they damage the skins protective barrier. When a skin condition such as this damages the skins protective barrier, it is easier for bacteria to get into the hair follicles and sweat glands. When boils are caused by plugged sweat glands infected with staph, this is called cystic acne.

When to See a Doctor

According to the University of Michigan Health System, a person can treat a boil at home by applying a warm wet compress to the site for 10 to 15 minutes at a time three times per day. The person should also wash the boil with antibacterial soap. This will help the boil drain and promote healing. However, puncturing or lancing a boil can spread the infection, so only a medical professional should do this.

Boils can sometimes lead to other health problems if not treated. For example, Johns Hopkins warns that untreated boils can lead to blood poisoning, MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and other health problems. If treating the boil at home has not produced relief within one week, a visit to a doctor is recommended. In addition, if the boil is extremely large and painful, a fever is present, red streaks extend from the boil or if the boil is located on the face, the person should seek medical care. People who have diabetes and are over 65 years of age should always consult a doctor if they develop a boil. Finally, if a person gets boils with increased frequency or in groups, a doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics to clear up any underlying infection.

Before visiting a doctor for treatment of a boil, there are steps to be taken to ensure proper care. Patients should record when the boil first appeared. They should also write down a list of any medications they take along with any other symptoms that accompany the boil.

The doctor may perform a skin biopsy to identify the exact type of bacteria. This will help the doctor determine the proper course of treatment. The patient should take any prescribed medications as directed and follow any other instructions given by the doctor to ensure optimal recovery. Extremely large or deep boils sometimes need to be surgically drained by a medical professional.

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