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Ask Doctor K: Apply warm, wet compresses to treat most boils at home

Boils and carbuncles are skin infections that form pus-filled pockets in the skin. Pus is a fluid that contains bacteria, dead skin cells and infection-fighting white blood cells.
BY ANTHONY L. KOMAROFF, M.D. Published: October 2, 2012

If you have a carbuncle, a large boil or a boil that doesn't improve after a week of warm compress treatments, call your doctor. Your doctor will drain the infected area through a small incision. This relieves pain, speeds recovery and limits scar formation. You may need to take antibiotics for a carbuncle.

If the infection is deep, your doctor may fill the drained pocket with sterile gauze. The gauze can keep the incision open, allowing pus to continue to drain.

Now and then a boil or a carbuncle leads to a spreading skin infection called cellulitis. If you see the skin around a boil or carbuncle begin to get red and tender, and that red area starts growing, contact your doctor. Cellulitis usually requires antibiotic treatment.

If you have an area of skin that is prone to boils or carbuncles:

Keep the area clean and dry.

Avoid wearing tight clothing.

Wash daily with antibacterial soap.

Use warm compresses at the earliest sign of irritation.

Avoid shaving in that area.

Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D., is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.


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