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Carbuncles

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Complications of Carbuncles

Sometimes, carbuncles are caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, and require treatment with potent prescription antibiotics if the lesions are not drained properly.

In rare cases, bacteria from a carbuncle can escape into the bloodstream and cause serious complications, including sepsis and infections in other parts of the body such as the lung, bones, joints, heart, blood, and central nervous system. 

Sepsis is an overwhelming infection of the body that is a medical emergency and can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms include chills, a spiking fever, rapid heart rate, and a feeling of being extremely ill.

Home Treatment for Carbuncles

The cardinal rule is to avoid squeezing or irritating a carbuncle, which increases the risk of complications and severe scarring. 

Warm compresses may promote the drainage and healing of carbuncles. Gently soak the carbuncle in warm water, or apply a clean, warm, moist washcloth for 20 minutes several times per day. Similar strategies include covering the carbuncle with a clean, dry cloth and gently applying a heating pad or hot water bottle for 20 minutes several times per day. After each use, washcloths or cloths should be washed in hot water and dried at a high temperature. 

Washing the carbuncle and covering the area with a sterile bandage also may promote drainage and healing and help prevent the infection from spreading. Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve the pain of an inflamed carbuncle. 

It's important to thoroughly wash your hands after touching a carbuncle. Launder any clothing, bedding, and towels that have touched a carbuncle and avoid sharing bedding, clothing, or other personal items.

Medical Treatments for Carbuncles

See your doctor if a boil or boils do not drain and heal after a few days of home treatment or if you suspect you have a carbuncle. Also, seek medical evaluation for a carbuncle that develops on your face, near your eyes or nose, or on your spine. Also see a doctor for a carbuncle that becomes very large or painful. 

Your doctor may cut and drain the carbuncle, and ensure that all the pus has been removed by washing the area with a sterile solution. Some of the pus can be collected and sent to a lab to identify the bacteria causing the infection and check for susceptibility to antibiotics. 

If the carbuncle is completely drained, antibiotics are usually unnecessary. But treatment with antibiotics may be necessary in cases such as:

  • When MRSA is involved and drainage is incomplete
  • There is surrounding soft-tissue infection (cellulitis)
  • A person has a weakened immune system
  • An infection has spread to other parts of the body

Depending on severity, most carbuncles heal within two to three weeks after medical treatment.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Norman Levine, MD on October 30, 2012
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