What is a carbuncle?

Boils are bacterial infections that form under your skin at a hair follicle. A carbuncle is a cluster of boils that have multiple pus “heads.” They’re tender and painful, and cause a severe infection which could leave a scar. A carbuncle is also called a staph skin infection.

The most obvious first symptom of a carbuncle is a red, irritated lump under your skin. Touching it may be painful. It can range from the size of a lentil to a medium-sized mushroom.

The size of the lump increases over a few days as it quickly becomes filled with pus. It eventually develops a yellow-white tip or “head” that will rupture and drain the pus. Nearby areas may also experience swelling.

Other symptoms may include:

Pus usually appears within one day of carbuncle formation.

A carbuncle usually develops when Staphylococcus aureus bacteria enter your hair follicles. These bacteria are also referred to as “staph.” Scrapes and other broken skin make it easy for bacteria to enter your body and cause an infection. This can result in boils or carbuncles (a cluster of boils) filled with fluid and pus.

The moist parts of your body are particularly susceptible to this infection because bacteria thrive in these areas. Carbuncles are usually found on the back of the neck, shoulders, or thigh. They can also appear on your face, neck, armpits, or buttocks; or any area you sweat or experience friction.

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:

Your 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’s lasted longer than two weeks. You should also mention if you’ve 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.

There are several possible treatments for a carbuncle. First, it’s important to assess your carbuncle:

  • Is it bigger than two inches?
  • Is it on your face — close to your nose or eyes?
  • Is it close to your spine?
  • Has it worsened rapidly?
  • Has it remained unhealed for two weeks?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should see a doctor. Your infection could lead to more serious problems.

Medical treatment

Your doctor will use one or more of the following medical treatments to heal your carbuncle:

  • Antibiotics. These are taken orally or applied to your skin.
  • Pain relievers. Over-the-counter medications are typically sufficient.
  • Antibacterial soaps. These may be suggested as part of your daily cleaning regimen.
  • Surgery. Your doctor may drain deep or large carbuncles with a scalpel or needle.

You should never try to drain a carbuncle yourself. There’s a risk that you’ll spread the infection. You could also end up infecting your bloodstream.

Home care

To soothe your pain, speed healing, and lower the risk of spreading the infection:

  • Place a clean, warm, 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’ve had surgery.
  • Wash your hands after touching your carbuncle.

Carbuncles typically respond well to medical treatment. In some cases, they may heal without medical intervention.

Your first infection may result in repeated infections in the future. See your doctor if this happens. It could be a sign of a more serious health problem.

Proper hygiene reduces your risk of developing a carbuncle. Follow these prevention tips:

  • Wash your hands before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • Shower often to keep your skin free of bacteria.
  • Avoid squeezing boils or rubbing any broken skin.
  • Wash clothes, sheets, and towels regularly in hot water.

See your doctor if you think you have a chronic illness or other skin issues that may be causing breaks in your skin.