Understanding Bacterial Skin Infections: Furuncles and Carbuncles

Bacterial skin infections are common occurrences for many people, especially the obese, elderly, diabetic, and those with a compromised immune system. Other factors that can facilitate bacterial skin infections include a hot and humid climate, poor hygiene, a large amount of people living in close quarters, and people taking steroids. Manifesting as furuncles and/or carbuncles, bacterial skin infections are uncomfortable and painful at best, and can pose a serious health risk at worst.

Furuncles and Carbuncles

The first thing to understand about bacterial skin infections is the definition of furuncles and carbuncles. Furuncles are a skin abscess caused by a staphylococcal infection involving a hair follicle and surrounding tissue. The bacteria staphylococcal occurs on the skin normally, but can cause an infection through a break in the skin. A furuncle appears as a red and painful lesion or bump, also known as a boil. Often, the furuncle will present with a white or yellow “head” which will burst and drain on its own. Sometimes, if the furuncle is very large or causes other symptoms, such as fever, a doctor will perform an incision and drainage (I&D) to promote faster healing.

A carbuncle is clusters of furuncles connected together under the skin causing a deeper infection and subsequent scarring. At this point, a number of health problems can occur, including blood poisoning or sepsis, and monitoring by a trained medical professional is recommended. Furuncles and carbuncles are most commonly found on the neck, breasts, face, buttocks and thighs, although bacterial skin infections can appear anywhere on the body.

Treatment of Bacterial Skin Infections

It is imperative not to squeeze a furuncle, as this can spread the infection to other parts of the body. The best course of treatment is to apply a hot compress soaked in salt water several times a day to bring the furuncle to a head and help it to drain spontaneously. Typically, antibiotics are not prescribed unless the lesions are large, do not respond to topical treatments, frequently recur, or if it looks like the infection is spreading.

Prevention of Bacterial Skin Infections

Loose, comfortable clothing of natural fibers is recommended for people at risk of developing bacterial skin infections. The skin should be kept clean and dry. A liquid soap containing chlorhexidrine gluconate with isopropyl alcohol may help prevent bacterial skin infections. For recurring problems, one to two months of a maintenance antibiotic may be prescribed. Good hand washing techniques are necessary, and linens such as towels or sheets should not be shared between people.

Bacterial skin infections are common, but if left untreated can result in serious health problems. If the furuncle becomes extremely painful, lasts longer than two weeks or induces a fever, a doctor should be consulted immediately for further treatment.

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