Boils, also known as furuncles, are painful lumps that betray inflammation of the hair follicle or oil gland in the dermis of the skin due to skin infections. Medically, they are known as folliculitis. They usually appear as bumps on the epidermis of the skin. When boils expand, they are basically nodules filled with pus and when they cluster, they are referred to as carbuncles. When boils reoccur, the condition is called chronic furunculosis. Quite a number of terms to deal with.
Unlike acne, boils can spread from one body part to another or from person to person. Boils can occur anywhere on the skin but are more prevalent in areas where there’s a combination of sweat, hair, and friction such as the face, neck, armpits, buttocks, and the eyelid. When boils appear on the eyelid, they are called stys (or hordeolum) and a sty results from the acute infection of the sebaceous glands in the eyelids.
A Boil Versus a Pimple
While it may be difficult to distinguish a boil from a pimple because of their similar causes and features, a boil is usually a lot more reddish in appearance than a pimple and represents a true infection, unlike pimples. A pimple is not contagious, while a boil could be contracted by direct skin contact with an infected individual who has an opening at a pustule (head) of the boil.
Causes of Boils
Boils are caused by factors such as bacterial infection, heredity, and immune system dysfunction. Naturally, bacteria on the skin (such as Staphylococcus aureus) are the causes of boils. These bacteria find their way into the skin through cuts in the skin and form colonies in the hair follicle, leading to the follicle’s inflammation. As a way of responding to the inflammation, the immune system deploys white blood cells to kill these bacteria and over time, a mixture of the dead bacteria, white blood cells, and skin cells forms pus within the boil. Risk factors for folliculitis include obesity, bacteria in the nostrils, poor nutrition, and constant use of immunosuppressants such as cancer chemotherapy drugs, prednisone, and prednisolone. Close contact with persons with Staphylococcus aureus infection could also lead to boils.
Boils, especially when recurrent, may be due to a family history of it, antimicrobial resistance due to regular use of antibiotics, anemia, diabetes mellitus, lesions and other skin diseases which cause the individual to scratch and, consequently, damage the skin. Other causes include alcoholism, poor hygiene methods, and obesity.
How are Boils Diagnosed?
Boils are usually self-diagnosable, but a diagnosis is better done by a physician through clinical evaluation which could sometimes include culturing of the skin lesion. However, you should endeavor to see your physician if you notice a boil or carbuncle on your face, spine or nose. This is because boils in these areas could lead to severe infections or complications.
If you have a boil that is soft and spongy to touch, you should also see your physician because such boils usually do not burst or heal on their own. If you also notice that a boil has remained on your skin for two weeks, it could indicate something more serious.
Signs and Symptoms
Boils differ in sizes from the pea-sized boils to the golf-sized ones. Usually, at the onset of boils, there is a milk-colored point at the center of the lump whenever the boil is about to drain its pus.
Signs differ from person to person just as causes differ, but severe cases are usually accompanied by fever, fatigue and inflamed lymph nodes.
Complications may arise from boils too, the most prevalent of which is scarring of the skin which could lead to conditions such as cellulitis, folliculitis, and impetigo. Other organs that could be affected include the spinal cord, brain and the kidney. In severe and rare occurrences, the causative bacteria may find their way into the bloodstream and cause complications in many body tissues, causing abscesses, osteomyelitis, endocarditis, and sometimes pneumonia which may become life-threatening. Strains of Staphylococcus aureus, the causative bacteria of boils, sometimes produce enzymes that increase the severity of diseases such as food poisoning, septic shock, and scalded skin syndrome. It is thus important to consult your physician when signs and symptoms of boils are noticed, so as to forestall complications.
Sometimes boils clear up on their own and dry off without leaving a scar. While treating boils yourself, a regular application of a moist clean facecloth for about 10-20 minutes three times daily can help speed up its cure. This is done to increase blood flow to the area where the boil is situated so that more white blood cells could be deployed to tackle the infection. The area where the boil is present on the skin must be kept clean always, and it is hygienic to wash your hands immediately after touching such areas in order to prevent the spread of the bacteria.
Squeezing or cutting is highly discouraged outside medical settings because there is a great chance that the causative infection will spread if that is done. For large, recurrent boils that grow out in sensitive areas such as the groin, nostrils, ear, armpits, and breasts, antibiotic therapy is usually recommended but should not be used outside a doctor’s advice. However, to prevent antimicrobial resistance, the use of antibiotics should not exceed a month, with an interval of over two months between two therapy sessions. A plastic surgery may be used to remove boils at the chronic stage (more than two years of reoccurrence).
When boils are suspected to lead to severe complications, they should be incised and drained if antibiotics have proven ineffective. This class of furuncles include those that are extremely large, have stayed on more than two weeks, or occur around the spine or at the middle of the face.
Also, treatment methods are administered depending on the area the bacteria are found on the body. For instance, an antiseptic soap could be recommended for killing the bacteria if they are present in the skin; if they are present in or around the nose, an antiseptic cream should be used for about 10 days to exterminate them.
Preventive Measures against Boils
While there are no fixed rules for preventing boils entirely, there are simple steps with which you could reduce your risk of being infected. First, you will need to have your bath regularly with mild antibacterial soaps or antiseptic disinfectants which help to prevent bacterial build-up in the skin. You will also have to clean wounds and cuts carefully (no matter how small) after which you should bandage the wounds or cuts with a sterile bandage until they heal. Healthy eating and regular exercising, which help to boost the immune system, are also important for the prevention of boils.
You also need to practice good hygiene methods such as washing the clothes, beddings, and towels of an infected patient regularly to keep boils away. If a boil has occurred as a result of shaving, it is important to stop shaving that area until the boil appears to have healed so as to prevent the spread of bacteria around the skin.
Your health is of paramount importance to yourself, your loved ones and your family, thus, you should take extra care to ensure you’re free from infections that are capable of causing you harm. Perhaps you notice a lump on your skin that looks like a boil, ensure you see your physician, stay hygienic, and live healthily!