A furuncle is an infected hair follicle. Better known to laypeople as boils, furuncles are fairly common, and can appear in people at all ages and levels of physical condition. Often, they resolve on their own without treatment, but there are some steps which can be taken to speed healing, and furuncles can sometimes benefit from being treated by a doctor.
Furuncles happen when bacteria or fungi manage to make their way into a hair follicle, causing a small infection. Staph bacteria are often the guilty parties. The furuncle will swell, fill with fluid, and cause discomfort. Often the site is hot to the touch, and it may also be sore. In a location like the ear or the nose, the boil can be extremely irritating.
The furuncle cannot heal until the infected material drains. Typically, after several days, the boil ruptures, allowing the built up material inside to drain so that healing can start. Applying hot compresses can speed this process. Once a furuncle has opened, it is important to keep it clean to avoid reinfection. The site should be washed with warm water and soap regularly, and it should be kept out of dirty environments.
Sometimes, multiple furuncles appear, in which case they can join together and form a carbuncle. Like furuncles, carbuncles often heal just fine on their own, although they can be painful and unsightly for a few days first. If the infection does not resolve or appears to grow worse, a doctor can manually drain and clean it. After this treatment, the furuncle should heal as long as it stays clean.
In addition to keeping the site clean, some people take anti-inflammatory drugs to keep the inflammation down. This can make the site less painful, and will reduce the inflamed, reddened appearance of the boil.
Sometimes, a boil turns into an abscess, a more serious infection. Abscesses do need to be treated because they cannot drain and resolve on their own. Left untreated, they can cause severe complications, even eating into the bone and damaging the muscles in the surrounding area. It is not a good idea to try draining and cleaning an abscess at home, as tissue may be missed, which could cause the abscess to fester. If the site of the infection is particularly large, a doctor may need to leave a drain in for several days to allow the abscess to drain infected fluid before it closes up again.