Boils: Treatments, Causes, and Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on February 02, 2023
6 min read

A boil is a contagious skin infection that starts in a hair follicle or oil gland. At first, the skin turns red in the area of the infection, and a tender lump develops. After 4-7 days, the lump starts turning white as pus collects under the skin.

When you know how to get rid of a boil, you can probably treat it at home.

Boils can affect any area of your body where you have hair, or where rubbing can occur. They usually form in places where you sweat. 

Most often, they’re caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. But they can form from other types of bacteria or fungi on your skin. You may get them just once, every once in a while, or often.

Here are some common places they can appear:

Boils in the groin area. Boils can affect the skin folds of the groin, the pubic area, and the lips and folds of the vagina. This area has lots of hair follicles and can be prone to chafing, especially if you wear tight-fitting clothes. You can also develop a boil after you get a cut or ingrown hair due to shaving this area.

Boils on buttocks. Boils frequently affect the buttocks due to hair follicles, sweat, and friction in the area. Dirty underwear could make a boil here more likely. 

Boils on the face. Boils on your face are different from cysts and pimples, though they can look similar. Cysts are filled with fluid, while a pimple is the result of a clogged pore. Cysts and pimples aren’t contagious like boils can be.

Boil on eyelid. If a boil occurs here, it’s called a stye, and it can be painful. You treat them similarly to the way you treat a boil anywhere else. If it doesn’t go away on its own, a dermatologist can prescribe an antibiotic cream or eye drops.

Other areas where boils often appear include:

  • Breasts
  • Armpits
  • Shoulders
  • Legs

Keep an eye out for several boils that appear in a group. That’s a more serious type of infection called a carbuncle.

Most boils are caused by staph bacteria. This germ enters your body through tiny nicks or cuts in your skin or can travel down a hair to the follicle.

These things make people more likely to get boils and other skin infections:

  • Diabetes, which can make it harder for your body to fight infection 
  • A weakened immune system
  • Other skin conditions that break your skin’s protective barrier
  • Contact with others, especially if someone you live with has a boil
  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor nutrition
  • Exposure to harsh chemical that irritate the skin

A boil starts as a hard, red, painful lump about the size of a pea. Over the next few days, the lump becomes softer, larger, and more painful. Soon a pocket of pus forms on the top of the boil. 

These are signs of a serious infection:

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph n
  • odes
  • Infected, red, painful, and warm skin around the boil
  • Additional boil or boils

Boils vs. pimples. Pimples are caused by clogged pores, but boils stem from an infection. That’s why you might notice boils around scratches or cuts, unlike pimples. Pimples aren’t contagious, but boils can be. A boil will likely grow faster than a pimple and hurt more. And it won’t get better when you use pimple treatments.

Boils vs. cysts. A cyst isn’t caused by an infection. It doesn’t hurt and is usually harmless. Cysts usually grow more slowly than boils. Fluid might come out if you squeeze a cyst, but it’s not whitish yellow pus, which is a sign of infection. Cysts aren’t contagious, but you can spread boils to others. 

Boils usually don’t require medical attention. But if you’re in poor health and develop high fever and chills along with the boil, go to the emergency room. 

Call your doctor if your boil doesn’t go away after 2 weeks or or you have:

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Red or red streaks around the boil   
  • Serious pain
  • Multiple boils 
  • Vision issues
  • Recurring boils
  • Other conditions such as a heart murmur, diabetes, a problem with your immune system, or if you use immune-suppressing drugs like corticosteroids or chemotherapy

Your doctor can do a physical exam to see if you have a boil. This skin infection can affect many parts of the body, so they may ask about other parts of your body.

You may be able to treat boils at home. But whatever you do, don’t pick at the boil or try to pop it yourself. The boil may drain on its own, which is important in the healing process. 

Some ways to treat a boil include:

Apply warm compresses. Soak a washcloth in warm water and then press it gently against the boil for about 10 minutes. You can repeat this a few times throughout the day. Once you see the pus at the center (that’s called “bringing a boil to a head,” it’ll probably burst and drain soon. This usually occurs within 10 days after you see the head.

Use a heating pad. A heating pad can help the boil start to drain, too. Put the heating pad over a damp towel and lay it on the affected area. It may take up to a week for the boil to start opening and draining the pus. Keep applying heat, either with a heating pad or compress, for up to 3 days after the boil opens.

Keep it clean. As with any infection, you should keep the area clean. Use soap and warm water to wash the boil twice daily, and then gently pat the area dry. Keep towels and washcloths that come into contact with the boil separate from other towels.

Use a cover or bandage. To help the boil heal faster, keep it covered. After you wash the boil and the area around it, apply a clean dressing to keep it protected. You can use a bandage or gauze.

Practice good hygiene. After touching the boil or surrounding area, thoroughly wash your hands to prevent spreading the infection to other parts of your body -- or passing it to another person. Take a bath or a shower daily to keep your skin clean and prevent the spread of infection to others. Avoid public swimming pools and gyms until your boil has cleared up.

Wash your linens. To lower the risk of further infection, wash your bedding, clothing, and towels at least once a week at a high temperature to kill off bacteria. Don’t share your towels with anyone else while you have a boil.

Take a pain reducer. If your boil is painful, take a pain reliever like acetaminophen or  ibuprofen. These can also lower your fever if your boil is causing one.

If you’re concerned about the infection, your doctor may run additional blood tests. They might prescribe antibiotics if the infection is serious.

If they drain the boil, they may take a sample (called a culture) to determine what type of bacteria caused the infection and assess whether you got the right antibiotic.

Whether your boil drains at home or is drained by a doctor, you’ll need to clean the infected area 2-3 times a day until the wound heals. Apply an antibiotic ointment after washing, then cover with a bandage. 

If the area turns red or looks as if it is getting infected again, call your doctor.

To avoid getting boils: 

  • Carefully wash clothes, bedding, and towels.
  • Don’t share personal items, like towels, that touch your skin.
  • Clean and treat minor skin wounds.
  • Practice good personal hygiene including regular hand-washing.
  • Stay as healthy as possible.

Most boils will disappear on their own or with simple home treatment. In rare cases, the bacteria can enter your bloodstream and affect other parts of your body. That could lead to more serious infections.