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Boils (Skin Abscesses)

What causes boils to form?

There are many causes of boils. Some boils can be caused by an ingrown hair. Others can form as the result of a splinter or other foreign material that has become lodged in the skin. Others boil, such as those of acne, are caused by plugged sweat glands that become infected. Often the exact cause of a boil cannot be determined.

The skin is an essential part of our immune defense against materials and microbes that are foreign to our body. Any break in the skin, such as a cut or scrape, can develop into an abscess should it become infected with bacteria.

Boil vs. pimple

A pimple is a type of skin condition that can appear similar to a boil. Pimples are most commonly seen in people with acne of the face, back, or chest. Pimples may at times be filled with pus (like a boil) in addition to dead skin cells and oily secretions. Like boils, pimples start in pores that are openings for hair follicles in the skin. A boil is typically reddened and causes more pain than a pimple. Some pimples and boils may be indistinguishable, and these two conditions arise from a similar inflammatory process occurring in the hair follicles, with boils being more severe and representing true infections.

Are boils contagious?

The bacteria present inside the boil can be contagious to others, especially if there is direct contact with the secretions from an open boil. (See the section on prevention for tips on how to prevent the spread of infection from a boil.)

Reviewed on 5/12/2017
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