The term boil refers to a pus-filled skin infection that occurs around a hair follicle or oil gland. As pus collects under the skin, a red, painful lump forms. A boil that appears on the eyelid is known as a stye.
Boils are pus-filled skin infections that occur around a hair follicle or oil gland. This causes a red, painful lump to form as pus collects under the skin. A boil that occurs on the eyelid is called a stye.
How to treat a Boil
To treat a boil or stye at home, dermatologists recommend the following tips:
- Make a warm compress. Applying heat in the form of a warm compress is the best way to treat boils and styes yourself. To make a warm compress, soak a clean washcloth in hot water. Be careful not to use water that is too hot, especially on children.
- Apply the warm compress. Hold the compress to the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes. Do this three to four times daily until the boil or stye releases pus and heals. Never squeeze or pierce a boil or stye yourself, as this can spread the infection.
- Consider taking ibuprofen. If your boil or stye is painful, consider taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce the pain. Make sure you read the directions on the packaging for the correct dose.
- Keep the area clean. Always keep the area clean, and avoid touching or rubbing the boil or stye. If you have a stye, avoid wearing eye makeup or contact lenses until the stye heals.
- Keep it covered. If your boil bursts, cover it with a sterile bandage or gauze to prevent infection while it heals.
Most boils and styes heal on their own within one to three weeks. However, if the pain or swelling worsens after several days, another boil or stye appears, or you develop a fever or vision problems with the infection, see a board-certified dermatologist.
A boil may begin as tender, pinkish-red, and swollen, on a firm area of the skin. Over time, it will feel like a water-filled balloon or cyst.
Pain gets worse as it fills with pus and dead tissue. Pain lessens when the boil drains. A boil may drain on its own. More often, the boil needs to be opened to drain.
The main symptoms of a boil include:
- A bump about the size of a pea, but may be as large as a golf ball
- White or yellow center (pustules)
- Spread to other skin areas or joining with other boils
- Quick growth
- Weeping, oozing, or crusting
Other symptoms may include:
- General ill-feeling
- Itching before the boil develops
- Skin redness around the boil
Exams and Tests
The health care provider can usually diagnose a boil based on how it looks. A sample of cells from the boil may be sent to the lab for a culture to look for staphylococcus or other bacteria.
Boils may heal on their own after a period of itching and mild pain. More often, they become more painful as pus builds up.
Boils usually need to open and drain in order to heal. This most often happens within 2 weeks. You should:
- Put warm, moist, compresses on the boil several times a day to speed draining and healing.
- Never squeeze a boil or try to cut it open at home. This can spread the infection.
- Continue to put warm, wet, compresses on the area after the boil opens.
You may need to have surgery to drain deep or large boils. Get treatment from your provider if:
- You have a fever or other symptoms with the boil.
- The boil causes pain or discomfort.
- You have a boil on your spine or the middle of your face.
- A boil lasts longer than 1 week.
- A boil comes back.
It is important to keep a boil clean. To do this:
- Clean boils and change their dressing often.
- Wash your hands well before and after touching a boil.
- DO NOT reuse or share washcloths or towels. Wash clothing, washcloths, towels, and sheets or other items that have touched infected areas in hot water.
- Throw out used dressings in a sealed bag so that fluid from the boil does not touch anything else.
Your provider may give you antibiotics to take by mouth or a shot, if the boil is very bad or comes back.
Antibacterial soaps and creams cannot help much once a boil has formed.
Some people have repeated boil infections and are unable to prevent them.
Boils in areas such as the ear canal or nose can be very painful.
Boils that form close together may expand and join, causing a condition called carbunculosis.
These complications may occur:
- Abscess of the skin, spinal cord, brain, kidneys, or other organ
- Brain infection
- Heart infection
- Bone infection
- Infection of the blood or tissues (sepsis)
- Spinal cord infection
- Spread of infection to other parts of the body or skin surfaces
- Permanent scarring
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if boils:
- Appear on your face or spine
- Occur along with a fever, red streaks coming out from the sore, a large build-up of fluid in the area, or other symptoms of infection
- Cause pain or discomfort
- Do not heal with home treatment within 1 week
- Come back after treatment
The following may help prevent the spread of infection:
- Antibacterial soaps
- Antiseptic (germ-killing) washes
- Keeping clean (such as thorough hand washing)
Dinulos JGH. Bacterial infections. In: Dinulos JGH, ed. Habif’s Clinical Dermatology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 9.
Pallin DJ. Skin infections. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 129.
Last reviewed on: 11/4/2020
Reviewed by: Elika Hoss, MD, Senior Associate Consultant, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, AZ. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.