Treatment for Boils: A Dermatologist Provides Solutions

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

Each month on Health Central's skin care site, we select one member question to ask of our consulting dermatologist, Dr. Lawrence Green. In this post we are going to be discussing boils. Boils are a common skin infection usually caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, but can also caused by other types of bacteria or fungi. Boils can occur anywhere on the body where you have hair follicles. The hair follicle becomes damaged in some way allowing bacteria to work its way into the skin. The most common sites on the body for boils to develop are on the facial area, neck, armpit, buttocks, and thighs. Boils can cause pain and discomfort especially if they grow in size.

Dr. Green will now give us some ideas of how to treat this type of skin ailment.

Our question about boils comes from member Bob who asks:

What is the treatment for boils? My mother-in-law has a boil on her upper lip. Apparently boil drawing salve is no longer available at pharmacies. Is there anything else to treat them?** Dr. Green answers:**

Boils are infections of the hair follicle. Somehow, bacteria gets trapped in the follicle (often by someone scratching the bacteria into the follicle from their fingernails), and the bacteria proliferate and pus builds up around the entire area. If a lot of pus in present, boils can become very painful. You need to see a dermatologist to get the boil drained (to relieve the pressure), but also the dermatologist can culture the boil to check what kind of bacteria you have infecting the follicle. Usually the bacteria in boils is Staph bacteria-and right away most dermatologists will prescribe an antibiotic for you to take that treats Staph. But, sometimes it is not a Staph infection. So, when the dermatologist gets the results of the culture, you will know if you need to alter the antibiotic you are taking.

I am not aware of any boil drawing salves that really worked as advertised. The best bet is to have the boil drained by a physician.

Thank you Dr. Green for your answer

Here are some additional answers to questions about boils:

What do boils look like?

The New Zealand Dermatological Society website has many images of boils to share. Boils look like red spots or lumps which can swell as it builds up with pus. Most boils are pea-sized or smaller but some can grow as large as a golf ball (source: U.S. National Library of Medicine) A boil may have a white or yellow center and you can also develop a cluster of boils in the same skin site. Some boils may drain on their own and become crusted over.

When should one call the doctor about a boil?

Boils usually resolve on their own but there are some situations which call for medical attention and these include:

  • You are a patient with diabetes or have a weakened immune system due to cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.

  • You are a patient who develops a boil while taking prednisone, a medication which can affect the immune system.

  • You develop multiple boils.

  • You have a fever, chills, or illness in addition to developing a boil.

  • Your boil does not resolve after two weeks.

  • You experience recurring boils.

  • Your boil is located on your spine or the middle of your face.

  • Your boil is increasing in size and has not drained.

Are there any at-home treatments for boils?

As Dr. Green has mentioned, a dermatologist can take care of a boil usually by draining it and prescribing the necessary antibiotic. In the meantime here are some things you can do at home to prevent discomfort.

  • Do not attempt to drain your boil on your own. You are likely to spread infection this way.

  • Apply warm wet compresses to the affected area several times a day to speed up the healing process.

  • Some people use tea tree oil as a home remedy for boils although there may be little scientific proof that it works. Soak a cotton ball with tea tree oil (can be purchased at your local health food store) and cover the affected area for five to ten minutes. You can do this several times a day. Make sure to test a small patch of unaffected skin prior to use to see if you have any type of adverse reaction to tea tree oil.

We always like to hear from our members. If you have had experience with boils please share your story here. What worked in treating your boil? Do you have any home remedies to share? We would love to hear them.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."