A carbuncle is a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin. A boil (or furuncle) is an infection of a hair follicle that has a small collection of pus (called an abscess) under the skin. Usually single, a carbuncle is most likely to occur on a hairy area of the body such as the back or nape of the neck. But a carbuncle also can develop in other areas of the body such as the buttocks, thighs, groin, and armpits.
Most carbuncles are caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, which inhabit the skin surface, throat, and nasal passages. These bacteria can cause infection by entering the skin through a hair follicle, small scrape, or puncture, although sometimes there is no obvious point of entry.
Filled with pus -- a mixture of old and white blood cells, bacteria, and dead skin cells -- carbuncles must drain before they're able to heal. Carbuncles are more likely than boils to leave scars.
An active boil or carbuncle is contagious: the infection can spread to other parts of the person's body or to other people through skin-to-skin contact or the sharing of personal items. So it's important to practice appropriate self-care measures, like keeping the area clean and covered, until the carbuncle drains and heals.
Carbuncles require medical treatment to prevent or manage complications, promote healing, and minimize scarring. Contact your doctor if you have a boil or boils that have persisted for more than a few days.
Risk Factors for Carbuncles
Older age, obesity, poor hygiene, and poor overall health are associated with carbuncles. Other risk factors for carbuncles include:
- Chronic skin conditions, which damage the skin's protective barrier
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Any condition or treatment that weakens the immune system
Carbuncles also can occur in otherwise healthy, fit, younger people, especially those who live together in group settings such as college dorms and share items such as bed linens, towels, or clothing. In addition, people of any age can develop carbuncles from irritations or abrasions to the skin surface caused by tight clothing, shaving, or insect bites, especially in body areas with heavy perspiration.
Symptoms of Carbuncles
The boils that collect to form carbuncles usually start as red, painful bumps. The carbuncle fills with pus and develops white or yellow tips that weep, ooze, or crust. Over a period of several days, many untreated carbuncles rupture, discharging a creamy white or pink fluid.
Superficial carbuncles -- which have multiple openings on the skin's surface -- are less likely to leave a deep scar. Deep carbuncles are more likely to cause significant scarring.
Other carbuncle symptoms include fever, fatigue, and a feeling of general sickness. Swelling may occur in nearby tissue and lymph nodes, especially lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin.