Written by Chitra Badii and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


A carbuncle is an infection of the skin that may be filled with pus. The infection usually occurs deep within your skin and involves your hair follicles. It is also called a staph skin infection.

Carbunculosis is the name given to more than one carbuncle. This condition can cause permanent skin scarring. It can easily infect other parts of your body and other people.

What Causes Carbuncles?

A carbuncle usually develops when Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria enter your hair follicles. Scrapes and other broken skin make it easy for bacteria to enter your body and cause an infection. This can result in a number of fluid- and pus-filled boils containing dead tissue.

The moist parts of your body are particularly susceptible. Bacteria thrive in these areas—particularly in the nose, mouth, groin, thighs, and armpits.

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing a Carbuncle?

Being in close contact with someone who has a carbuncle increases your chances of developing one. The following factors also increase the risk of developing a carbuncle:

  • poor hygiene
  • diabetes
  • a weak immune system
  • dermatitis
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • shaving and other activities that break the skin

Distinguishing a Carbuncle From Other Skin Problems

The most obvious symptom of a carbuncle is a red, irritated lump under your skin. Touching it may be painful. It can vary from lentil size to the size of a medium-sized mushroom. The lump quickly becomes filled with pus. Nearby areas may also experience swelling. You might also have other symptoms including:

  • itching before the lump appears
  • bodily ache and fatigue
  • fever
  • skin crustiness or oozing

Pus usually appears within one day of carbuncle formation.

How Is a Carbuncle Diagnosed?

A doctor can usually diagnose a carbuncle by looking at your skin. A pus sample may also be taken for lab analysis.

It’s important to keep track of how long you’ve had the carbuncle. Tell your doctor if it has lasted longer than two weeks. Also mention if you have had the same symptoms before.

If you keep developing carbuncles, it may be a sign of other health issues, such as diabetes. Your doctor may want to run urine or blood tests to check your overall health.

How Is a Carbuncle Treated?

There are several possible treatments for a carbuncle. If the mass is close to your nose, spine, or eyes, it is important to see a doctor. These infections could lead to more serious problems.


Antibiotics are sometimes needed for treatment. They are either taken orally or rubbed on your skin.

Pain relievers can be used if necessary. Normally over-the-counter medications are enough.

Antibacterial soaps may be suggested as part of your daily regimen.


Some deep or large carbuncles require surgical treatment. A carbuncle may be drained with a scalpel or needle.

You should never try to drain a carbuncle yourself. There is a risk you will spread the infection. You could also end up infecting your bloodstream.

Home Care

To decrease your pain and lower the risk of spreading the infection:

  • Place a clean, moist cloth on your carbuncle several times a day. Leave it on for 15 minutes. This will help it drain faster.
  • Keep your skin clean with antibacterial soap.
  • Change your bandages often if you have undergone surgery.
  • Wash your hands after touching a carbuncle.

Long-Term Outlook for a Carbuncle

A carbuncle typically responds well to medical treatment. In some cases, they may heal without medical intervention.

Your first infection may result in repeated infections in the future. If this happens, seek medical attention. It could be a sign of a larger health problem.

Preventing a Carbuncle

Proper hygiene reduces your risk of developing a carbuncle:

  • Wash your hands before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • Shower often to keep your skin free of bacteria.
  • Avoid squeezing boils or rubbing broken skin.
  • Wash clothes, sheets, and towels regularly in hot water.
  • See a doctor if you suspect a chronic illness or have other skin issues that cause breaks in the skin.
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