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Boils are caused by bacteria, which gain entry to your skin at the root of a hair. Each of the tiny hairs in your skin emerges from a deep pit – the hair follicle. The bacteria multiply at the bottom of the hair follicle and then spread into the nearby skin. The result is a lump that is red and tender, and which may discharge pus before it heals. Often it leaves a scar.

What you can do

Avoid spreading the bacteria.The usual culprits are staphylococci bacteria. It is very likely that you are carrying these bacteria just inside your nose and then transferring them to your skin. We all touch our noses surprisingly often without realizing what we are doing. Try to avoid touching your nose unnecessarily. (Getting out of the habit of touching your nose unnecessarily has another benefit – you will be less likely to catch colds and flu.)

Staphylococcus bacteria in the nose can cause boils

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in the nose, attached to hair-like
cilia on nasal epithelial cells

Wash your hands after touching affected areas of skin to prevent spreading the bacteria to unaffected areas.

If you are susceptible to boils, avoid whirlpool footbaths at nail salons. There have been several cases of boils on the legs caused by bacteria in whirlpool footbaths used during pedicures.

Use an antiseptic wash. I do not usually recommend antiseptic soap, but for people with recurrent boils it is a good idea. Bath or shower daily using the soap.

Do not squeeze or pierce the boil.

If the boils are only in your armpits or groins, see our section on Armpit boils for advice on a condition called hidradenitis suppurative (sometimes called acne inversa).

What your doctor can do

Most boils heal themselves without the need for medical treatment, but you should see your doctor if the boil does not heal within 2 weeks. Your doctor can take a swab from your nose and send it to the laboratory to check whether you have staphylococci bacteria there. If so, your doctor can prescribe an antiseptic or a topical antibiotic to use on the skin to get rid of the boil. Patience is needed, because you will have to apply the antiseptic or antibiotic twice daily for 6 weeks.

If the boils still keep coming, other people in your household should also have nose swab tests to see if they are carrying staphylococci, which might be transferred to you. If so, they should be treated. As a last resort, your doctor might prescribe low-dose antibiotic tablets for about 3 months.

Your doctor will also look for a reason why your immune system might be weakened, such as diabetes or some other chronic illness. Usually no such cause is found and you will be completely healthy except for the annoying boils.

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by:
Last updated: Tuesday, August 2nd 2016


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