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What Is a Carbuncle?

A carbuncle is an infection of the skin that may be filled with pus. The infection usually occurs deep within your skin and involves the hair follicles. It’s also called a staph skin infection.

Carbunculosis is the name given to more than one carbuncle. This condition can cause permanent skin scarring. It can easily infect other parts of your body and other people.

Pictures of a Carbuncle

Distinguishing a Carbuncle from Other Skin Problems

The most obvious symptom of a carbuncle is a red, irritated lump under your skin. Touching it may be painful. It can range from the size of a lentil to the size of a medium-sized mushroom. The lump quickly becomes filled with pus. Nearby areas may also experience swelling. Other symptoms may include: 

  • itching before the lump appears
  • bodily aches
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • skin crustiness or oozing 

Pus usually appears within one day of carbuncle formation.

What Are the Causes of a Carbuncle?

A carbuncle usually develops when Staphylococcus aureus bacteria enter your hair follicles. This bacteria is also referred to as "staph." Scrapes and other broken skin make it easy for bacteria to enter your body and cause an infection. This can result in a number of boils filled with fluid and pus that contain dead tissue.

The moist parts of your body are particularly susceptible to this infection because bacteria thrive in these areas. This is especially the case in the: 

  • nose
  • mouth
  • groin
  • thighs
  • armpits

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing a Carbuncle?

Being in close contact with someone who has a carbuncle increases your chances of developing one. The following factors also increase the risk of developing a carbuncle: 

  • poor hygiene
  • diabetes
  • a weak immune system
  • dermatitis
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • shaving and other activities that break the skin

How Is a Carbuncle Diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose a carbuncle by looking at your skin. A pus sample may also be taken for lab analysis.

It’s important to keep track of how long you’ve had the carbuncle. Tell your doctor if it’s lasted longer than two weeks. You should also mention if you’ve had the same symptoms before. 

If you keep developing carbuncles, it may be a sign of other health issues, such as diabetes. Your doctor may want to run urine or blood tests to check your overall health.

How Is a Carbuncle Treated?

There are several possible treatments for a carbuncle. If the mass is close to your nose, spine, or eyes, it’s important to see a doctor. These infections could lead to more serious problems.

Medical Treatment 

The following medical treatments can be used for a carbuncle: 

  • Antibiotics are sometimes needed for treatment. They’re either taken orally or rubbed on your skin.
  • Pain relievers can be used if necessary. Normally over-the-counter medications are enough. 
  • Antibacterial soaps may be suggested as part of your daily regimen.
  • Surgeries may be used to address some deep or large carbuncles. A carbuncle may be drained with a scalpel or needle.

You should never try to drain a carbuncle yourself. There’s a risk that you’ll spread the infection. You could also end up infecting your bloodstream.

Home Care

To decrease your pain and lower the risk of spreading the infection: 

  • Place a clean, warm, moist cloth on your carbuncle several times a day. Leave it on for 15 minutes. This will help it drain faster.
  • Keep your skin clean with antibacterial soap.
  • Change your bandages often if you’ve had surgery.
  • Wash your hands after touching a carbuncle.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Carbuncles typically respond well to medical treatment. In some cases, they may heal without medical intervention.

Your first infection may result in repeated infections in the future. See your doctor if this happens. It could be a sign of a more serious health problem.

Preventing a Carbuncle

Proper hygiene reduces your risk of developing a carbuncle. Follow these tips to prevent a carbuncle: 

  • Wash your hands before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • Shower often to keep your skin free of bacteria.
  • Avoid squeezing boils or rubbing any broken skin.
  • Wash clothes, sheets, and towels regularly in hot water.
  • See your doctor if you think you have a chronic illness or other skin issues that cause breaks in the skin.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Chitra Badii and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Medically reviewed on: Jan 28, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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