Someone should not attempt to pop a boil at home as the bacteria that cause a boil can spread to other parts of the body. In some cases, this can cause serious complications.
A doctor can safely drain a boil. A person can also use simple home remedies to help a boil heal.
In this article, we will explain what boils are in more detail, why it is not safe to pop them, and other ways to treat boils.
Bacterial folliculitis, or an infection of a hair follicle, causes boils. When bacteria get into a hair follicle, an infection can cause tender spots or lumps to appear on the skin. Over time, the infection creates a boil, which is a painful pus-filled abscess filled with under the skin.
There are several types of boil:
- furuncles, which have one head
- carbuncles, which have multiple heads
- styes, which appear on the eyelid
According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), boils sometimes start as cysts, but then rupture, become infected, and turn into boils.
However, according to DermNet, Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacteria cause most boils. An estimated 10–20% of people carry S. aureus on the surface of their skin.
If something scratches, injures, rubs, or otherwise damages the skin, bacteria can enter the hair follicles.
Boils often develop in areas of the body that are hairy, tend to sweat, or experience friction during movement, such as the armpits and between the legs or buttocks.
Anyone can develop a boil, but some factors may make them more likely, such as:
According to a 2018 article, a person should never attempt to pop a boil themselves. Popping or squeezing a boil can allow bacteria to infect deeper layers of the skin, as well as other tissues and organs. This can lead to serious, life-threatening complications.
Boils can heal on their own without medical treatment. However, if a boil is large, painful, or in a dangerous location, such as on the face, a doctor can safely drain a boil when it reaches the right stage.
Draining a boil is a quick procedure. First, a doctor will numb the area with an anesthetic or by cooling the skin. They will then sterilize the skin, make a tiny cut, and drain the boil. They will apply a compress or band-aid to protect the wound while it heals.
Some people with boils also need antibiotics. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for people with:
- boils on the face, such as the nose or upper lip
- multiple or severe boils
- an infection that spreads to the lymph nodes
- a fever, low blood pressure, rapid breathing, and a high pulse rate
- signs of systemic infection
Oral antibiotic courses often last 10–14 days. They tend to be more effective than topical antibiotics because creams and ointments cannot penetrate beneath the skin.
People with reoccurring boils may need to apply prescription medications to places where bacteria live, such as the inside of their nose. Close friends or family may also need to use this medication, as they could be carriers of S. aureus.
There is a range of home remedies that a person can try, such as:
Keeping the boil clean
In addition to drainage and antibiotics from a doctor, a person can help boils heal at home by keeping the area clean.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommend that people with a boil avoid touching or rubbing the area unnecessarily. People with styes should also stop wearing eye makeup or contact lenses until the stye heals.
Experts also recommend:
- using antiseptic or antibacterial soap daily for 1 week, then twice weekly for several weeks
- using 70% isopropyl alcohol diluted in water daily for 1 week after the boil forms
- washing the hands with soap or using hand sanitizer regularly
If the boil bursts, a person should dress the wound in a sterile bandage to prevent dirt from getting inside. It is also a good idea to:
- change underwear and nightwear every day
- avoid activities that rub against the wound, or cause sweating or friction
- avoid sharing towels and clothing with other people in the household
- refrain from picking the nose, as the nose can harbor S. aureus
Applying a warm compress
- soaking a clean washcloth in hot (but not scalding) water
- adding some antiseptic and gently pressing the cloth to the boil
- holding the cloth in place with mild pressure for 10–15 minutes
Some people may find it easier to hold the compress in place using a bandage. People can use a warm compress 3–4 times daily until the boil naturally bursts and drains.
A drawing salve can also speed the healing of a boil. Drawing salves are medicated ointments that help draw bacteria and pus out of an abscess. They usually contain ammonium bituminosulfonate, or Ichthyol, as their active ingredient.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can reduce the symptoms of a boil. They may help with pain and swelling.
Follow the instructions on the label and speak to a pharmacist before giving medications to children or people with underlying conditions.
People with severe boils may need to avoid moving the affected area entirely until it heals. This is because movement can put pressure on the boil and increase the risk of the infection getting into the bloodstream.
If someone has a boil on the face, they may have to avoid talking, making unnecessary facial expressions, and chewing. Drinking liquids or eating mushy food can help with this. In some cases, a person may need bed rest.
How long a boil takes to heal depends on several factors, such as how severe, large, or deep it is. According to the AAD, it typically takes between 1–3 weeks for boils to burst and drain on their own. Some experts state that many boils heal within 10 days.
The AAD suggest that a person should also see a doctor as soon as possible if:
- the pain or swelling gets worse
- more boils or styes appear
- they develop a fever or vision problems
A person must also see a doctor if they are at risk for complications. This includes people who have a boil on the face, who have reoccurring boils, or who have underlying conditions that weaken the immune system.
A bacterial infection in the skin causes boils. Popping a boil may introduce bacteria to deeper layers of the skin or the bloodstream. This can potentially lead to a much more severe infection.
A doctor can safely drain a boil and prescribe antiseptic ointments or antibiotics if needed. People can help a boil heal at home by keeping the area clean, applying warm compresses, and using OTC pain medication.
Someone with severe, multiple, or reoccurring boils should see a doctor. They should also see a doctor if a boil does not heal or have symptoms of a systemic infection.