I have heard that boils can be caused by a mineral or vitamin deficiency. Is this true? Secondly, I have had a boil for approximately six years. It will go away for a few months but soon return. I've tried a variety of drawing salves and these seem to help, but only temporarily. What should I do?

— Plagued

Dear Plagued,

Even biblical texts make reference to the plague of boils! A boil (also called a furuncle) is an inflamed, pus-filled area of the skin usually caused by an infection with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. While they may appear solo, a tight grouping of boils that connect under the skin, called a carbuncle, can also occur. These bothersome bumps can occur anywhere where there are hair follicles on the body but are most often found on the face, neck, the bum, in the armpit, or the groin area. It’s possible to experience this type of dermatological phenomena as a one-time deal or as an extended engagement (such as the one you've described). No direct connection exists between mineral or vitamin deficiency and the formation of boils; however, having an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals does keep your vital body functions in general good working order, promoting a stronger immune system to fight bacterial infections.

A bit more about these bumps: A single boil appears initially as a red, painful lump that eventually swells, fills with pus, and has a yellowish tip. They can vary in size, with some getting to the size of a golf ball, and will typically rupture on their own. Carbuncles may look similar (think of a small constellation of boils), but the infection causing the bump is often more severe and more likely to cause scarring. They may also be accompanied by fever and chills. Certain folks are at a higher risk for boils and carbuncles, including those who are in contact with others with an active staph infection and those with a compromised ability to fight off infection, such as people living with diabetes or other skin conditions.

If your boil isn’t too big, you may be able to treat it on your own at home. Applying warm compresses on the affected area can reduce discomfort and encourage draining. Thoroughly washing your hands and laundering any towels or clothing that come in contact with the drained boil(s) is also recommended. Though it may be tempting to employ a little DIY (do-it-yourself) here, pretty please avoid the squeeze! Squeezing or bursting a boil on your own may cause the infection to spread or make it worse. Because you do mention that it recurs, getting a health care provider involved may be wise. They may prescribe an antibiotic or may open up the boil with a sterile needle to drain the pus from the site. Using liquid antiseptic soap for a few months while taking antibiotics may be indicated, specifically for folks experiencing recurrences.

When all is said and done, you may be looking forward to preventing future boils from appearing. Generally, adequate handwashing, cleaning any wounds (so bacteria can’t find an easy way into the body), and keeping personal items personal may help keep the bacterial culprit at bay — and in turn, any potential boils. With proper care and hygiene, many folks can prevent boils from reaching biblical proportions!

Last updated Jan 08, 2021
Originally published Apr 18, 1995

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