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Furuncles and Carbuncles


Wingfield E. Rehmus

, MD, MPH, University of British Columbia

Last full review/revision Feb 2021| Content last modified Feb 2021

Furuncles (boils) are skin abscesses caused by staphylococcal infection, which involve a hair follicle and surrounding tissue. Carbuncles are clusters of furuncles connected subcutaneously, causing deeper suppuration and scarring. They are smaller and more superficial than subcutaneous abscesses. Diagnosis is by appearance. Treatment is warm compresses and often oral antistaphylococcal antibiotics.

(See also Overview of Bacterial Skin Infections.)

Both furuncles and carbuncles may affect healthy young people but are more common among the obese, the immunocompromised (including those with neutrophil defects), older people, and possibly those with diabetes. Clustered cases may occur among those living in crowded quarters with relatively poor hygiene or among contacts of patients infected with virulent strains. Predisposing factors include bacterial colonization of skin or nares, hot and humid climates, and occlusion or abnormal follicular anatomy (eg, comedones in acne). Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a common cause.

Furuncles are common on the neck, breasts, face, and buttocks. They are uncomfortable and may be painful when closely attached to underlying structures (eg, on the nose, ear, or fingers). Appearance is a nodule or pustule that discharges necrotic tissue and sanguineous pus.

Carbuncles are clusters of furuncles that are subcutaneously connected. They may be accompanied by fever and prostration.

Diagnosis of Furuncles and Carbuncles

  • Clinical evaluation
  • Culture of lesion

Diagnosis is by examination. Material for culture should be obtained.

Treatment of Furuncles and Carbuncles

  • Drainage
  • Often antibiotics effective against MRSA

Abscesses are incised and drained. Intermittent hot compresses are used to facilitate drainage. Antibiotics, when used, should be effective against MRSA, pending culture and sensitivity test results. In afebrile patients, treatment of a single lesion < 5 mm requires no antibiotics. Systemic antibiotics are recommended for the following:

  • Lesions > 5 mm or < 5 mm that do not resolve with drainage
  • Multiple lesions
  • Evidence of expanding cellulitis
  • Immunocompromised patients
  • Patients at risk of endocarditis
  • Fever

Treatment choices include trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (TMP/SMX) 160/800 mg to 320/1600 mg orally 2 times a day, clindamycin 300 to 600 mg orally every 6 to 8 hours, and doxycycline or minocycline 100 mg orally every 12 hours.

Inpatients with furunculosis in hospital settings where MRSA is prevalent may require isolation from other inpatients and treatment as recommended for cellulitis based on culture results.

Furuncles frequently recur and can be prevented by applying liquid soap containing either chlorhexidine gluconate with isopropyl alcohol or 2 to 3% chloroxylenol and by giving maintenance antibiotics over 1 to 2 months. Patients with recurrent furunculosis should be treated for predisposing factors such as obesity, diabetes, occupational or industrial exposure to inciting factors, and nasal carriage of S. aureus or MRSA colonization.

Key Points

  • Suspect a furuncle if a nodule or pustule involves a hair follicle and discharges necrotic tissue and sanguineous pus, particularly if on the neck, breasts, face, or buttocks.
  • Culture furuncles and carbuncles.
  • Drain lesions.
  • Prescribe antibiotics effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) for patients who are immunocompromised, febrile, or at risk of endocarditis, or if lesions do not resolve with drainage or are > 5 mm, multiple, or expanding.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
trimethoprim No US brand name
minocycline MINOCIN
clindamycin CLEOCIN

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