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Carbuncle

Skin infection - staphylococcal; Infection - skin - staph; Staph skin infection; Carbunculosis; Boil

A carbuncle is a skin infection that often involves a group of hair follicles. The infected material forms a lump, which occurs deep in the skin and often contains pus.

When a person has many carbuncles, the condition is called carbunculosis.

Causes

Most carbuncles are caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (S aureus).

A carbuncle is a cluster of several skin boils (furuncles). The infected mass is filled with fluid, pus, and dead tissue. Fluid may drain out of the carbuncle, but sometimes the mass is so deep that it cannot drain on its own.

Carbuncles can develop anywhere. But they are most common on the back and the nape of the neck. Men get carbuncles more often than women.

The bacteria that cause this condition spread easily. So, family members may develop carbuncles at the same time. Often, the cause of a carbuncle cannot be determined.

You are more likely to get a carbuncle if you have:

People with diabetes, dermatitis, and a weakened immune system are more likely to develop staph infections that can cause carbuncles.

Staph bacteria are sometimes found in the nose or around the genitals. Carbuncles can recur when antibiotics are not able to treat the bacteria in those areas.

Symptoms

A carbuncle is a swollen lump or mass under the skin. It may be the size of a pea or as large as a golf ball. The carbuncle may be red and irritated and might hurt when you touch it.

A carbuncle usually:

Sometimes, other symptoms may occur. These may include:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will look at your skin. The diagnosis is based on what the skin looks like. A sample of the pus may be sent to a lab to determine the bacteria causing the infection (bacterial culture). The test result helps your provider determine the appropriate treatment.

Treatment

Carbuncles usually must drain before they will heal. This most often occurs on its own in less than 2 weeks.

Placing a warm moist cloth on the carbuncle helps it to drain, which speeds healing. Apply a clean, warm moist cloth several times each day. Never squeeze a boil or try to cut it open at home, because this can spread the infection and make it worse.

You need to seek treatment if the carbuncle:

Treatment helps reduce complications related to an infection. Your provider may prescribe:

Deep or large carbuncles may need to be drained by your provider.

Proper hygiene is very important to prevent the spread of infection.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Carbuncles may heal on their own. Others usually respond well to treatment.

Possible Complications

Rare complications of carbuncles include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

Prevention

Good general health and hygiene may help prevent some staph skin infections. These infections are contagious, so care must be taken to avoid spreading the bacteria to other people.

If you get carbuncles often, your provider may give you antibiotics to prevent them.

If you are a carrier of S aureus, your provider may give you antibiotics to prevent future infection.

Related Information

Boils
Atopic dermatitis
Abscess
Sepsis
Osteomyelitis
Endocarditis
Brain abscess
Spinal cord abscess

References

Ambrose G, Berlin D. Incision and drainage. In: Roberts JR, Custalow CB, Thomsen TW, eds. Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine and Acute Care. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 37.

Dinulos JGH. Bacterial infections. In: Dinulos JGH, ed. Habif's Clinical Dermatology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 9.

Sommer LL, Reboli AC, Heymann WR. Bacterial diseases. In: Bolognia JL, Schaffer JV, Cerroni L, eds. Dermatology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Limited; 2018:chap 74.

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Review Date: 4/14/2021  

Reviewed By: Elika Hoss, MD, Senior Associate Consultant, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, AZ. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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