Have you ever noticed a painful, swollen red bump on your skin and immediately felt the urge to freak out?! We certainly have. Finding a mysterious growth is a completely valid reason for concern.
When you first notice a new bump, you might just chalk it up to acne. But then, it keeps growing and getting worse. You start to wonder: is this acne or something more severe?
Well, that abrasion might not be a pimple at all—it could be a boil. And no, there’s no need to stress out. Boils are painful but manageable.
In this guide, we give you all the details you need to determine whether that new spot on your skin is an ordinary pimple or a boil. Then, we discuss the best ways to prevent and treat those painful red bumps. Let’s get into it!
What Is a Pimple?
Almost everyone has had at least one pimple in their lives, and most of us have had a lot more than that. Yet, even though the majority of people share that common experience, how many of us can say exactly what a pimple really is?
For our purposes today, it’s important to understand the definition of a pimple. So, here it is: a pimple is a comedo (a clogged pore) that shows up when the sebaceous (oil) glands become clogged by excess sebum or dead skin cells. The result is an infection that manifests as a swollen, red abrasion on the skin.
Now you know—that’s how pimples form. Pimples and zits are one and the same, and they fall into the broader category that is acne. Just to clarify, the acne umbrella also includes whiteheads, blackheads, cysts, nodules, and more.
Pimples tend to appear on the face, jawline, back, chest, and shoulders.
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What Is a Boil?
Now let’s talk about boils, a skin issue that’s far less common than acne or pimples.
Boils are red, painful skin bumps that grow more and more swollen over time. They gradually fill with pus, growing larger and more painful as the days go on. Eventually, boils rupture, and all the pus drains. It’s just about as bad as it sounds.
The way that boils form is very similar to the way pimples do. Boils appear when bacteria get into one or more of your hair follicles, infects, and inflames them. The most common type of bacteria that causes this issue is called staphylococcal bacteria. Don’t worry—you don’t need to remember that.
Sometimes, a cluster of boils forms from the same region of infection—this is called a carbuncle. (Boils are also called furuncles—the more you know, right?).
Unlike pimples, boils cover a lot of territory. They may appear anywhere on the skin, from the face to the neck to the armpits, butt, or thighs. Basically, areas with hair follicles that tend to get really sweaty or encounter high levels of friction are the most susceptible to boils.
How Can You Tell the Difference?
When it comes to treating boils and pimples, it’s vital to know what you’re dealing with. We manage each of these afflictions differently, so it’s essential to determine the nature of the beast before you try to tame it.
In general, one way to distinguish between the two is by quantity. Although boils might show up in groups every once in a while, they usually appear as singular, isolated bumps. On the other hand, pimples emerge in any number of forms, like blackheads, whiteheads, and pustules, often in clusters.
Along these lines, we should note that there are certain types of acne that look and feel very similar to boils. In particular, cysts and pustules can be indistinguishable from boils (if you don’t have the right information, that is).
So, let’s discuss cysts. Cysts, also known as nodules, are large, red, and swollen bumps—just like boils. However, cysts come from fungal infections, while boils form from bacterial infections.
What you really need to know, though, is how to distinguish them by feeling and appearance. First of all, cysts grow slowly, and they’re usually not painful (unless they burst underneath the skin). Boils grow faster, and they are quite painful. In addition, cysts are smooth on the surface, while boils often have a whitehead somewhere on top.
As you can tell, making the distinction between these two can be tough. Pustules present a similar issue—like boils, they’re red and filled with pus. Plus, there’s another layer of similarity: pustules also contain whiteheads.
How can you tell a pustule from a boil? Pustules tend to show up in clusters. Like we mentioned before, boils are usually loners.
So, if you notice a concerning red bump somewhere on your skin, the odds are high that it falls into one of these categories. If you’re still uncertain about a mysterious bump and it’s stressing you out, you may want to visit a dermatologist to get a professional opinion.
What Causes Boils?
If you currently have or have ever had a boil, we’re not trying to call you out. We’re sure you have excellent hygiene habits. However, there are certain practices that you may not consider at first thought.
For example, cleaning new cuts thoroughly helps to kill any harmful bacteria and reduce the risk of infection. Likewise, wearing loose-fitting clothing in sweat-prone areas will help you avoid boils.
Here’s our advice: if you live, work, or come into close contact with someone who has a boil, just be extra careful. Be sure to wash your hands and body often. Also, clean any objects, clothing, towels, or sheets that have touched the boil. Hot water and soap will do the trick!
If you determine that you do, indeed, have a boil, keep in mind that you need to treat it differently than acne. Things like face cleansers, acne creams, and face masks tend to reduce pimples, while boils require a separate approach.
For smaller boils, try applying a warm, wet washcloth as often as you can. This should eventually cause the pus to drain and the boil to get smaller.
Larger boils may require attention from a doctor (if the washcloth method isn’t working, that might be your sign to schedule a visit). The doctor will drill a small hole in the boil, causing the pus to drain. If necessary, they may prescribe antibiotics.
Closing Comments on Boils and Pimples
Both boils and pimples are widely prevalent skin issues that affect plenty of people. So, if you’re struggling with either issue, just know you’re not alone. And now, you have all the tools you need to deal with these conditions.
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