Boils (Abscesses)

What is a boil?

A boil is an inflamed, painful swelling of the skin, caused by bacteria. Boils can occur anywhere on the body. They often occur in damp areas such as in the armpit and groin, and at the back of the neck. They sometimes occur in lymph nodes, often in the armpit, groin or neck.

Boils are sometimes referred to as abscesses.

Signs and symptoms of boils

A boil usually starts as a small red bump or pimple, surrounded by red skin. The area of the skin may be itchy or mildly painful. Soon, the skin becomes red and swells as it fills with pus. The main symptoms include:

  • tender skin around the lump
  • a white or yellow tip, or “head”, may appear at the centre of the boil

The boil may burst. Blood, pus, or an amber-coloured liquid will drain out.

Causes of boils

Boils can occur when a hair follicle becomes infected by bacteria. This infection is called folliculitis. The infection often occurs where there is friction or irritation, such as shaving or scratching. Boils occur when a bacterial infection spreads to the deeper tissue under the skin and in the oil-producing glands.

Treatment of boils

Most of the time you can treat your child’s boil at home. Soak the boil in a warm bath, or apply a heating pad or a towel soaked in warm water for about 15 to 20 minutes. This will relieve the swelling and your child’s pain.

Make sure to clean any towels or cloths after each use. Boils can be contagious, which means they spread easily. If the boil bursts, wipe away the pus or blood with a clean cotton ball soaked in antiseptic solution.

Encourage your child not to squeeze or poke the boil. This can spread the infection or cause scarring. It may help to cut your child’s nails very short.

How your doctor can help your child with boils

If your child’s boil lasts longer than 2 weeks, is very painful or large,or if your child seems unwell with a fever, take your child to a doctor. If your child has recurring boils, make an appointment with your child’s doctor.

A doctor or other health care provider will physically examine the boil. In some cases, the boil may need to be surgically drained. This means your child’s doctor will make a small cut in the boil to help release the pus. Sometimes the doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics (taken by mouth) to help clear the infection.

Key points

  • A boil (abscess) is a painful, red swelling of the skin with a white or yellow tip at the centre.
  • Boils can occur when your child’s hair follicle becomes infected by bacteria from shaving or scratching.
  • If your child’s boil lasts longer than 2 weeks, or is very painful or large, or if the child has fever, take your child to a doctor right away.
  • If your child has boils more than once, make an appointment with your child’s doctor.
  • Treatment includes warm compresses and sometimes antibiotics. Occasionally your doctor will drain the boil.

Sheila Jacobson, MBBCh, FRCPC