Various bacteria normally populate the surface of your skin. Minor skin trauma -- like getting stuck by a thorn or a pin -- can provide a route of entry, allowing these bacteria to invade and cause a localized infection known as a skin abscess, also commonly called a boil. A boil that arises in a hair follicle is called a furuncle. A boil is a walled-off collection of bacteria and pus that characteristically causes a painful, red, lump beneath the skin surface. You can sometimes treat a small skin abscess yourself using home remedies to bring the pimple-like lump to a head so the infection and pus drains out, allowing the area to heal.
Application of warm, moist compresses is the easiest and most widely used home remedy to assist in drawing out the infection from a skin abscess or boil. You can simply wet a wash cloth with warm tap water, about the temperature of bath water. Lightly wring out the cloth and place it on the affected area for about 20 minutes at least 3 or 4 times daily. Rewet the cloth if it cools too quickly. After each application, place the used cloth in the laundry.
Some people advocate using warm compresses made with water that has been infused with herbs. However, it's unclear whether the addition of herbs to the water improves the effectiveness of the compress to bring the abscess to a head.
You can also use a small hot water bottle, a homemade rice sock or a commercial compress that you heat in the microwave. Keep in mind, however, that you must be able to clean the surface or cloth covering to prevent potential spread of the infection to other parts of your skin or to other people.
A poultice is a moist paste usually made from ground herbs or foods mixed with water, oil or another liquid. A wide variety of poultices have been used historically as home remedies for boils and other skin infections. These pastes are usually applied to the affected area and covered. When the paste dries, it is removed and moist poultice is reapplied.
Unfortunately, no scientific research has been conducted to determine whether poultices actually help draw out infection from a skin abscess. A few examples of the many poultices that are purported to aid with boils include:
- Heated milk, bread and salt (which acts largely like a warm compress)
- Grated raw potato
- Ground plantain leaves
- Onion-based poultices
- Ground neem leaves (or application of neem oil to the boil)
Warnings and Precautions
Most small skin abscesses or boils resolve on their own within 1 to 3 weeks, with or without use of home remedies. However, some skin abscesses do not go away on their own and require medical treatment. If you suspect you have a skin abscess/boil and it is large, painful, or has not improved within 2 weeks, see your doctor for treatment.
While it's tempting to squeeze a skin abscess or boil in an attempt to force the infection to drain, you should not squeeze or puncture the area. This can cause the infection to spread deeper into the skin and potentially into your bloodstream.
If you have diabetes or a weakened immune system and suspect you have a skin abscess or boil, contact your doctor without delay and do not attempt home treatment.
When you have a skin abscess or boil, keep it covered with an adhesive bandage or wrap the area in gauze. This will protect the area and contain any infectious drainage oozing from the area.
Skin abscesses and boils can lead to more serious complications. Contact your doctor right away if you experience any warning signs or symptoms including:
- Spreading redness around the affected area
- Red streaks radiating from the affected area
- Severe or rapidly worsening pain
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.