This Is the Difference Between a Pimple and a Boil

By | December 21, 2018

Here’s how you can determine if the red bump on your skin is a zit or a boil.

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Everyone knows that feeling of dread you feel the moment you spot a boil or a pimple on your skin. The ugly, red bumps can be painful to the touch. And to make matters worse, they can take weeks to fully heal, possibly even leaving a scar in its wake. Naturally, you may feel the irresistible urge to pop or squeeze them in a poor attempt to speed up the healing process. But your incessant picking could make the unwanted bumps last longer by burrowing the bacteria deeper into your body or scar your skin. If you want to treat a boil or zit effectively without compromising your health or skin, it’s important to understand the differences between the two. Check out the explanations behind these 14 skin mysteries.

The key factor that sets boils apart from pimples is how they’re formed. Boils pop up when the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria—generally harmless bacteria that live on the skin around your nose, mouth, genitals, and rectum—enters your skin through a cut, bug bite, or ingrown hair follicle to cause an infection. On the other hand, pores clogged by excess oils, dead skin cells, or bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes make zits appear. Boils and zits can be found anywhere on your skin, but boils are likely to show up in moist areas where the bacteria can thrive like your armpits, buttocks, and upper thighs.

Pimples typically don’t grow too much in size and come to a whitehead within a few days. However, boils will swell up and redden as the bump continues to fill with pus from the infection (most zits aren’t full of pus). The pressure on the skin builds up until the boil finally ruptures and drain. Either way, both bumps need to be brought to a head to rid your body of the excessive gunk or infection.

For boils, place a cloth under warm to hot water, but not boiling as you don’t want to burn the skin. Then apply the compact to the area three to four times a day for 10-15 minutes at a time to help bring the skin to a head. You should also take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce the discomfort or pain often associated with boils. If it ruptures, let the boil drain and then disinfect the opening with warm water and antibacterial soap. Then place a loose gauze bandage over the boil to prevent the bacteria from spreading to other parts of the body. Visit your doctor if the boil does not drain after two weeks, gets bigger, is accompanied by a fever, or additional boils start accumulating. You may need to get it surgically drained or a prescription to fight off the infection.

A warm-to-hot compress can also help a zit come to a head, but drugstore acne products with salicylic acid are much more effective at drying the zit out. A daily skincare routine that includes washing the skin with a mild cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid twice a day can help prevent future breakouts. An exfoliating facial scrub once or twice a week will even help keep dead skin cells from accumulating in your pores. For painful pimples that don’t get better with over-the-counter medications, seek a doctor. Find out the right ways to treat every type of acne.

Another rule to keep in mind: good hygiene. Unlike zits, boils carry a ton of bacteria that cause infections. If you touch an opened boil, you could spread the infection to other parts of the body. Always wash your hands with soap and water before and after you touch a boil. For an additional layer of protection, never share your towels, razors, makeup brushes or anything that could come into contact with the bacteria inside the boil. Next, find out the 12 things you should never do to your skin.

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