Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose a boil or carbuncle simply by looking at it. A sample of the pus may be sent to the lab for testing. This may be useful if you have recurring infections or an infection that hasn't responded to standard treatment.
Many varieties of the bacteria that cause boils have become resistant to certain types of antibiotics. So lab testing can help determine what type of antibiotic would work best in your situation.
You can generally treat small boils at home by applying warm compresses to relieve pain and promote natural drainage.
For larger boils and carbuncles, treatment may include:
- Incision and drainage. Your doctor may drain a large boil or carbuncle by making an incision in it. Deep infections that can't be completely drained may be packed with sterile gauze to help soak up and remove additional pus.
- Antibiotics. Sometimes your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help heal severe or recurrent infections.
For small boils, these measures may help the infection heal more quickly and prevent it from spreading:
- Warm compresses. Apply a warm washcloth or compress to the affected area several times a day, for about 10 minutes each time. This helps the boil rupture and drain more quickly.
- Never squeeze or lance a boil yourself. This can spread the infection.
- Prevent contamination. Wash your hands thoroughly after treating a boil. Also, launder clothing, towels or compresses that have touched the infected area, especially if you have recurrent infections.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to see your family doctor or primary care provider first, who may then refer you to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist) or infectious diseases.
What you can do
List all your signs and symptoms and when they first occurred. Record how long the bumps lasted and if any recurred. Make a list of all medications — including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter drugs — that you're taking. Even better, take the original bottles and a list of the doses and directions.
For boils and carbuncles, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- Are tests needed to confirm the diagnosis?
- What is the best course of action?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Can I wait to see if the condition goes away on its own?
- What can I do to prevent the infection from spreading?
- What skin care routine do you recommend while the condition heals?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- What did the boil look like when it first started?
- Are your symptoms painful?
- Have you had a boil or carbuncle before?
- Are you having fever or chills?
- Do you have artificial heart valves, joints or other implanted devices?
Sep 18, 2021
- Spelman D et al. Cellulitis and skin abscess: Clinical manifestations and diagnosis. https://.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Aug. 1, 2019.
- Downey K et al. Technique of incision and drainage for skin abscess. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Aug. 1, 2019.
- How to treat boils and styes. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/skin-hair-nails/skin-care/boils-and-styes. Accessed Aug. 1, 2019.
- Habif TP. Bacterial infections. In: Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy. 6th ed. Elsevier; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Aug. 1, 2019.
- Mukwende M, et al. Basics. In: Mind the Gap: A Handbook of Clinical Signs in Black and Brown Skin. St. George's University of London; 2020. https://www.blackandbrownskin.co.uk/mindthegap. Accessed July 13, 2021.
- Kelly AP, et al. Bacterial infections. In: Taylor and Kelly's Dermatology for Skin of Color. 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill Education; 2016. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed July 13, 2021.