What is a boil?

When bacteria infect a hair follicle or oil gland, a red, painful, pus-filled bump can form under the skin. This is known as a boil. A boil is usually very painful because of the pressure that develops as it grows bigger.

As a boil matures, it enlarges, and its center fills with pus. This pus-filled center is called the core. Eventually, the boil comes to a head, meaning a yellow-white tip develops on top of the core.

Do not pick at, squeeze, or try to open a boil in any way. You may force the skin infection deeper and make the situation worse.

In about a week, your boil will most likely start to change:

  • The pus in your boil will begin to drain on its own, and your boil will heal within a few weeks.
  • Your boil may heal without the pus draining out, and your body will slowly absorb and break down the pus.
  • Your boil doesn’t heal and either stays the same size or grows larger and more painful.

If it does not seem to be healing on its own, you may need to see a doctor. They can open your boil so the core of pus can drain. You should never do this yourself.

The recommended way to properly and safely get the core out of a boil is by having it opened by a medical professional.

In a sterile environment, your doctor will perform an incision and drainage by:

  • treating the area around your boil with antiseptic
  • lancing (opening it by making a small cut with a sharp instrument) your boil with a needle, lancet, or scalpel
  • draining the pus through the surgical incision (additional incisions may occasionally be necessary)
  • cleaning the cavity by irrigating it with sterile saline solution
  • dressing and bandaging the area

Your doctor will typically numb the area around your boil before a cut is made.

If your boil is very deep and doesn’t completely drain right away, your doctor may pack the cavity with sterile gauze to absorb leftover pus.

Following the procedure, your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic, such as Bactrim (sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim), if you have:

  • several boils
  • a fever
  • skin that looks infected

Often, antibiotics are given for boils on the face because they’re more likely to cause an infection in your body.

However, antibiotics may not work for boils because they’re walled off from your blood supply. This makes it difficult for the antibiotics to get in to work.

Again, do not attempt to open or pop your boil yourself. The risk of spreading the infection to your bloodstream is too high. You can, however, try these safe home-treatments:

  • Three or four times a day, put a warm, wet cloth on your boil for about 20 minutes. This will help bring the boil to a head. The boil may open on its own with about a week of this treatment. If it doesn’t, contact your doctor for possible incision and drainage in the office.
  • If the boil opens, gently wash the area and dress it with a sterile bandage. This helps stop the infection from spreading. Do not reuse any washcloths or towels that touched the pus draining from your boil until they have been laundered. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly at all times.
  • For the next few days, continue using the warm cloths to promote draining in the open wound. Gently wash the area and apply a fresh bandage two times a day or whenever pus leaks through.
  • Once the boil is fully drained, clean and bandage the area daily until it’s healed.

Be patient during this process. Do not try to squeeze the pus from the boil. Let it drain on its own.

Many people’s first thought is to open and drain their boil at home. That can often be safely accomplished using only hot compresses, cleanliness, and proper bandaging.

If your boil does not naturally resolve or if it grows bigger, more painful, or you develop a fever, you must go to your doctor to have the boil taken care of. Never try to cut or squeeze open a boil yourself.