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Carbuncles: All You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Martha Juco, MD · Aesthetics

Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel · Updated Mar 24

    Carbuncles: All You Need To Know

    The most frequent cause of carbuncles is the bacteria, staphylococcus aureus. A carbuncle is a collection of skin boils (furuncles). A boil (or furuncle) is an infection of a hair follicle that contains a small collection of pus (referred to as an abscess) beneath the skin. Typically, the infected mass is filled with fluid, pus, and dead tissue. While a boil is single, small, and round, a carbuncle is a group of boils under the skin that is red, swollen, and painful. Besides the back and nape of the neck, other areas of the body such as the buttocks, thighs, groin, and armpits are also susceptible to developing carbuncles.

    Should You Worry About Carbuncles?

    The majority of carbuncles are brought on by staphylococcus aureus bacteria, which live on the skin’s surface, in the throat, and in the nasal passages. These bacteria can infect the skin by penetrating through a hair follicle, a small scrape, or a puncture, though occasionally there isn’t a clear point of entry.

    Carbuncles must drain before they can heal because they are packed with pus, which is composed of bacteria, dead skin cells, and old, white blood cells. Carbuncles are more prone than boils to leave scars.

    It’s crucial to practice appropriate self-care practices, like keeping the area clean and covered, until the boil drains and heals. An active boil or carbuncle is contagious, so the infection can spread to other parts of the person’s body or to other people through skin-to-skin contact or the sharing of personal items.

    Medical attention must be sought in order to prevent complications, promote healing, and reduce the likelihood/chances of scarring. Consult a doctor if a boil or carbuncle persists for more than a few days or if you develop other symptoms like swollen lymph nodes or fever.

    Risk of Carbuncle

    Other factors that increase the likelihood of developing carbuncles include:

    • Long-term skin conditions that compromise the skin’s natural defenses
    • Diabetes
    • Kidney disease
    • Liver disease
    • Advanced age
    • Obesity
    • Poor hygiene
    • Poor overall health
    • Having any illness or taking any medication that compromises the immune system

    Additionally, people of any age can develop carbuncles due to irritations or abrasions to the skin surface caused by tight clothing, shaving, or insect bites, particularly in body areas with heavy perspiration. Sharing of items like bed linens, towels, or clothing also increase risk. 

    Signs of a Carbuncle

    Carbuncles are filled with fluid, pus, and dead tissue. Fluid may drain from the carbuncle, but occasionally the mass is too deep for it to do so. Boils that develop into carbuncles typically start as red, uncomfortable bumps, filled with pus. They then develop white or yellow points that drip, ooze, or crust. If left untreated for a few days, many carbuncles rupture, releasing a creamy white or pink fluid.

    Other carbuncle symptoms include:

    • Fever
    • Exhaustion
    • A general sensation of malaise
    • Swelling may occur in adjacent tissue and lymph nodes, particularly lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin


    Although serious or life-threatening consequences associated with carbuncles are uncommon, they may occur if the infection spreads. You may help lower your risk of significant issues by carefully following the treatment plan you and your healthcare practitioner carefully determine for you.

    Rarely, if the lesions are not properly drained, bacteria from a carbuncle can enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis and infections in the heart, blood, central nervous system, lungs, bones, and joints, among other serious issues. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria can occasionally develop carbuncles, which requires the administration of potent prescription antibiotics.

    Chills, a rapid heartbeat, and a general feeling of being very ill are some signs of sepsis, an overwhelming infection of the body that is a medical emergency and can be fatal if left untreated. Immediately head to the hospital if you experience these. 

    Carbuncle Management at Home

    Warm compresses may promote the drainage and healing of carbuncles. Gently soak the carbuncle in warm water, or apply a clean, warm, moist washcloth for 20 minutes several times a day. Other effective treatments include covering the carbuncle with a clean, dry cloth and gently applying a heating pad.

    Additionally, cleaning the carbuncle and bandaging the area may encourage drainage, speed up healing, and stop the infection from spreading. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which are available over-the-counter, can help reduce the discomfort of an inflamed carbuncle. It’s also important to thoroughly wash your hands after touching a carbuncle, and wash any clothing, bedding, or towels that have come into contact with one. Avoid sharing personal items like bedding or clothing.

    Medical Treatments

    If a boil or boils do not drain and heal after a few days of home treatment, or if you suspect you have a carbuncle, contact a doctor. You should also get a carbuncle that forms on your face, close to your eyes or nose, or on your spine evaluated by a doctor. 

    Your doctor may choose to cut and drain the carbuncle. After washing the area with a sterile solution to remove any pus, your doctor may decide to send some pus to a lab for identification of the bacteria causing the illness and testing for antibiotic susceptibility.

    Antibiotics are typically not required if the carbuncle is completely drained, but they may be required in certain circumstances, such as:

    • MRSA is present and the drainage is insufficient
    • There is a soft-tissue infection (cellulitis)
    • A person has a compromised immune system, or when an infection has spread to other parts of the body.

    Most carbuncles heal after medical therapy in two to three weeks, depending on severity.

    Key Takeaway

    A carbuncle is a cluster of boils that form a connected area of infection. Compared to single boils, carbuncles cause a deeper and more severe infection and are more likely to leave a scar. People who have a carbuncle often feel unwell in general and may experience a fever and chills. Apply a warm washcloth or compress to the affected area several times a day, for about 10 minutes each time. This helps the boil rupture and drain more quickly. Always consult your doctor or dermatologist for concerns. 

    Learn more about Skin Issues here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Martha Juco, MD


    Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel · Updated Mar 24

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