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A carbuncle is a skin infection that develops in a group of hair follicles causing boils to form deep

in the layers of the skin. These pus-filled boils may drain on their own or they may require

treatment by a dermatologist.


What Causes Carbuncles?


Carbuncles are more common in men than women and are more likely to develop in individuals with weakened immune systems.


Staphylococcus aureus bacteria cause most carbuncles. The bacteria enter the skin through a hair follicle or skin wound. Eventually, pus (a collection of white blood cells, dead skin cells and bacteria) gathers, creating multiple boils deep in the skin.


An active, weepy carbuncle can be contagious causing infection to spread to other areas or even to family members through skin-to-skin contact or sharing of contaminated personal items.


Symptoms of Carbuncles


Carbuncles typically form in areas where hair grows. They are most commonly seen on the back or the back of the neck, but they can also form on the thighs, buttocks, groin or underarms.


Early on, carbuncles appear as red, tender bumps. As pus develops, a white or yellow tip may form and the boils may ooze or crust. Carbuncles can be as small as a pencil eraser or as large golf ball.


If the infection spreads or worsens, individuals may experience fatigue, fever or other generalized symptoms of illness.


Diagnosing Carbuncles


Although a dermatologist can usually diagnose a carbuncle based on appearance, a pus sample may be sent to the lab for culture to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection.


Always see your dermatologist for a carbuncle on the face or spine or if signs of serious infection appear such as fever, red streaks or extensive swelling.


Treatment of Carbuncles


A carbuncle has to drain before healing can occur, but it’s important not to squeeze it, since this can lead to complications and scarring.


Encourage the carbuncle to drain by placing warm, moist towels on the bump several times a day. Keep the area clean by washing with an antibacterial soap, and always wash hands after touching the carbuncle. Be sure not to reuse washcloths or towels.


If healing is delayed or infection worsens, antibiotics may be needed. Even carbuncles that heal may return again repeatedly.


Complications of Carbuncles


Serious carbuncle complications include the following:


  • Abscess of the brain, spinal cord or organs

  • Severe scarring

  • Antibiotic resistant staph bacteria (MRSA)

  • Sepsis

  • Osteomyelitis


If you have a carbuncle that does not heal within 2-3 weeks, or you experience fever or other signs of infection, see your dermatologist for treatment.

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