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Boils - Treating boils and carbuncles

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Most boils get better without the need for medical treatment and can be successfully treated at home.

Self-care

One of the best ways to speed up the healing process is to apply a warm facecloth to the boil for 10 minutes three or four times a day. The heat increases the amount of blood circulating around the boil, which means more infection-fighting white blood cells are sent there.

When the boil bursts, cover it with sterile gauze or dressing to prevent the spread of infection. After this, wash your hands thoroughly using hot water and soap. This will help prevent you spreading bacteria to other parts of your body or other people.

Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, can help relieve any pain caused by the boil.

Draining boils

See your GP if you have a larger boil that feels soft and spongy to the touch (the medical name for this is a fluctuant boil).

Once a boil becomes soft and spongy, it is unlikely to burst open by itself and probably won't respond well to treatment with antibiotics

Your GP may be able to remove the pus using a technique called incision and drainage. In some cases, your GP may refer you to your local hospital for this treatment.

Incision and drainage involves piercing the tip of the boil with a sterile needle or scalpel. This encourages the pus to drain out of the boil, which should help to relieve pain and stimulate the recovery process. 

Before having the procedure you're likely to be given a local anaesthetic to numb the affected area.

Never attempt to squeeze or pierce a boil yourself because this can spread the infection.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are usually recommended:

  • for all cases of carbuncles
  • if you have a high temperature
  • if you develop a secondary infection, such as cellulitis (an infection of the deeper layer of the skin)
  • if you have a boil on your face - facial boils have a higher risk of causing complications
  • if you're in severe pain and discomfort

A seven-day course of a penicillin-based antibiotic called flucloxacillin is usually recommended. If penicillin is unsuitable for you, alternative antibiotics, such as erythromycin and clarithromycin, can be used.

It is important to finish the course of antibiotics even if the boil goes away, as not doing so could lead to a return of the infection.

Treating recurrent boils and carbuncles

Boils and carbuncles that keep returning often need further treatment.

Most people with recurrent boils develop them because they are carriers of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (staph bacteria), a common cause of boils and carbuncles. In this case, treatment may be necessary to kill these bacteria.

Treatment will depend on where the staph bacteria are found on your body. Bacteria on the skin can be treated with antiseptic soap.

Staph bacteria are also commonly found in the nose, in which case you may be prescribed an antiseptic nasal cream to apply several times a day for five to 10 days.

You will also be offered advice about preventing boils, such as regularly washing and cleaning cuts and grazes. See preventing boils and carbuncles for more information.

Medical Review: February 13, 2013
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