The Care and Feeding of Boils

There’s a reason boils were right up there with pestilence in the Bible, and that reason is that boils really suck.  Fret not, dear readers, I am here to help. I’ve whipped up a guide to the care and feeding of your boil, should you ever be unfortunate enough to find yourself with one. This is not a post for the squeamish.

What is a boil?

First and foremost, it might be pure evil.  In more scientific terms, a boil is a skin abscess, not unlike a giant pimple.  Boils are extremely painful, simply because those little bastards swell up fast, and they tend to appear on the parts of our bodies that experience a lot of friction, and not a lot of air flow.

Boils are usually caused by the bacteria staphylococcus, commonly known as staph.  Our bodies are normally hosts to a number of bacteria, both on the skin and in our insides, including staph.  When staph finds a way in, it can cause a host of terrible problems.  Boils are the least critical of these issues medically, but they can still be a quite literal pain in the ass.

When should you call in an expert?

Boils can be indicative of a more serious condition, like type II diabetes, so if you get them frequently and without a good reason (like an ingrown hair or shaving nick), you may want to discuss them with your doctor.  Most of the time, if you’re patient and tenacious, you can treat a boil at home.  Call your doctor immediately, however, if you notice the skin around the boil turning red and swollen, or if you see red streaks traveling out from the center of the boil to unaffected skin.  These are both signs of a much larger infection, which needs to be treated ASAP.  You should also see your doctor if you have compromised immunity, other medical issues that might be complicated by the boil or if you just don’t feel like dealing with it yourself.

You should also be treated by a doctor if you live with someone with a compromised immunity, because boils can be contagious. (I told you.  Pure evil.)  Whether or not you seek medical help, use lots of care to not share towels, soap or washcloths with anyone else for the duration of your boil.

If you see a doctor, he or she will probably want to lance it, which means cutting a small slit in the weakest part of the skin covering the boil and expressing the pus.  Your doctor may give you a local anesthetic first, which is ridiculously uncomfortable during the stick, then sweet, sweet relief a few seconds later.  Once all the pus is drained, the doc will treat the area with a little antibiotic ointment and cover it, if it’s in a place that can be covered.  You’ll be fine when the anesthetic wears off, once the pus is gone the horrible pain goes away.  The area will still be sore, like a scrape, but it’s such an improvement over the boil pain, it’s pretty easy to tolerate.

How to treat your boil at home

If you chose not to go to the doc, and you just want to ride it out, there are steps you can take to help speed up the lifespan of the boil.  Eventually, the weakest spot over the pus glob will break open, and all the evil will come out.  This can take some time, anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.  Two weeks is a long time to host a painful boil, the following tips should help move things along:

1. Keep it ridiculously clean.  Wash the boil and the surrounding skin several times a day, with mild soap, and dry it completely.  (But gently. Very gently.)

2. Spot treat with antibiotic ointment. The kind with a topical anesthetic are the very best.  They don’t completely dull the pain, but they take the OMDFG THE FUCK IS THIS? pain down a notch.

3. Protect from friction.  For the love of whatever you find sacred, protect it from friction. Dress it with gauze or a big Band-Aid if you can. In a pinch, affix a panty liner to the inside of any clothing that might rub against the area.

4. Treat 2x-3x a day with a hot compress.  Pop a wet washrag in the microwave for 15-45 seconds, until it’s as hot as you can tolerate without scalding yourself.  Place over the boil until it cools off, repeat.  DON’T reuse the washcloth without washing it first.  I have one word to help you remember this; carbuncle.  A carbuncle is a cluster of multiple boils.  I would rather sleep in a bed full of spiders than experience a cluster of boils.

5. Take over-the-counter pain relievers as needed.  Paired with pain relieving antibiotic ointment, it can keep the pain tolerable.

6. When it ruptures, it will be gross.  A boil can hold a surprising amount of bloody pus. Change the dressing frequently, and wash it thoroughly as soon as you can.  It may drain slowly, over a day or so, or it may drain quickly and somewhat dramatically.  Keep it clean, smeared with antibiotic ointment and covered/protected the whole time.  As gross as it can be, once it breaks the pain instantly gets better.  You’ll be so giddy with relief, the revolting nature of the ordeal won’t have much of an affect on you.

Here’s hoping you never have to deal with one, dear readers.


By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

9 replies on “The Care and Feeding of Boils”

I feel the need to add this public service announcement: For the Love of Steel Unicorns, take any and all antibiotics AS PRESCRIBED!! What does this have to do with boils on your butt? I’ll tell you. MRSA. One thing that can make a boil more evil than it would be is MRSA. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus is one of the Staph bacteria that can cause boils. What the “resistant” part means is that these little bastards are resistant to commonly used antibiotics. The overuse and incorrect (i.e. stopping taking them before you should) use of antibiotics has contributing to these bacteria developing a resistance to antibiotics. So take your antibiotics AS PRESCRIBED to help reduce the development of resistant bacteria.

I caught Community Acquired MRSA by swimming in a pool with family members who were CA-MRSA carriers. They did NOT have any active infections. I had a cut on my finger. I battled the MRSA for a year, have multiple scars from abscesses that were drained, I developed an allergy to 3 different antibiotics, one week out of every month I have to shove prescription strength antibiotic cream up my nose (CA-MRSA loves to hang out in your nose), and if I ever get a pimple, cut, ingrown hair, etc. that looks suspicious I have to immediately go to the doctor. And here’s the kicker…I’m one of the lucky ones! If this shit gets into your bloodstream and effects you internally it can swiftly become life-threatening.

So please, help stop MRSA by taking your antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor. And please, if you have recurring boils, in the same area, or with the same symptom set, see your doctor so they can take a culture to rule out MRSA.

As a bonus, youtube has lots of videos of people lancing their boils themselves, if you’re into that.

I’d also add that if you keep getting boils in the same place, see a doctor, because you might have a recurring infected cyst that needs removing.

Boils do suck, and warm compresses are amazing. Small boils, however, may not burst, but be “reabsorbed” by the body and simply disappear (this is what mine do, and, frankly, I would rather have them burst and get all the yuckiness OUT).

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