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Carbuncles are boils that form within an infected hair follicle. Usually, carbuncles are the result of a bacterial infection known as Staphylococcus aureus. If not discovered by a dermatologist and treated quickly, the infection can become serious and pus pockets of dead skin cells, blood cells, and liquids can form. Carbuncles have several causes, including diabetes mellitus, poor hygiene and friction from clothing.

Carbuncles differ from simple boils in that a carbuncle is a cluster of many boils. Often, the infection is deeper into the skin tissue and a carbuncle will leave a scar when it heals. Boils do not usually leave scars. Boils and carbuncles can appear anywhere on the skin. However, they typically appear on thighs, buttocks, armpits, face and the neck. These are places on the body where you often experience sweating or friction from clothing.

Symptoms

Often, if you have carbuncles, you will feel unwell in general. You may feel lethargic or tired. This is because of the depth of the infection causing the carbuncle.

The initial symptoms of carbuncles are redness and swelling under the skin. Eventually, the swelling can give way to multiple pus heads that appear beneath the surface of the skin. These areas of swelling are painful and tender to the touch. Without treatment, complications from carbuncles can lead to abscesses and septicemia, which require aggressive treatment.

Symptoms of septicemia include chills, fever, pain, increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, increased respiratory rate, vomiting and abdominal pain. Left untreated, septicemia can result in death.

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of carbuncles requires an examination by a doctor. The doctor will take a history of symptoms and also conduct a physical examination of the affected area. Additionally, a sensitivity test and culture may be performed. Also, a biopsy may be required in more severe cases to determine the type of infection causing the carbuncle. This procedure makes it possible to prescribe the right kind of antibiotic to resolve the infection.

In cases of carbuncles where septicemia or cellulitis are present, additional tests may be necessary, including blood count tests, especially white blood counts. White blood counts increase with infection. People with diabetes often have problems with recurring carbuncles, since their immune systems are compromised and they often do not feel when they are having skin problems.

Misdiagnosis

Carbuncles have symptoms that are common for many other skin conditions. As a result, it is not uncommon for the condition to be initially misdiagnosed. Other conditions with similar symptoms include folliculitis, impetigo and acne. Since the skin is red in cases of carbuncle, the condition can also be misdiagnosed as rosacea.

Treatment

Treatment of carbuncles depends largely on how severe the condition is when it is present. In addition to prescribing antibiotics, the doctor may also prescribe pain medication to address tenderness and pain. When the carbuncle is severe, the doctor may make a small incision to drain excess fluid and pus from it.

Prevention

The best way to prevent carbuncles is through hygiene. Make sure that cuts and scrapes are cleaned thoroughly and treated with antibiotic ointment. Also, wash hands frequently with mild soap and hot water. Personal items such as sheets, towels, razors, clothing and athletic equipment should not be shared and should be washed thoroughly after use with hot water and soap or detergent. Dry fabric items, such as sheets, towels and clothing in a hot dryer.