Boil vs. Cyst : What Are the Differences? (2024)

A cyst and a boil can both look like a bump, though their causes differ. For example:

  • A boil—also known as a furuncle—occurs due to a bacterial infection of a hair follicle and the tissue around it. Treatment involves killing the infection and preventing it from spreading.
  • A skin cyst occurs when the skin turns inside out on itself due to an unknown trigger. The tendency for this to happen is usually genetic. Treatment depends on where the cyst exists and the symptoms it causes.

This article describes how a boil and a cyst differ in their symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Symptoms of Boils vs. Cysts

While both types of bumps can appear anywhere on your body, symptoms of a boil can vary from symptoms of a cyst.

Knowing how each type of skin bump looks, feels, and affects your skin provides valuable clues when trying to identify a new bump on your skin.


A boil appears as a red to purple swollen skin lump, similar to a pimple. It usually has one or more whiteheads, called pustules, that form in the center. Pustules contain a white-yellow, pus-like fluid that may ooze from the boil. If several adjacent follicles become infected from the spread of the bacteria, they may form a larger nodule called a carbuncle.

Boil vs. Cyst : What Are the Differences? (1)

The size of a boil varies. It can range from the size of a cherry stone to the size of a walnut, and some grow even larger. The size of a boil may increase quickly as the pus increases within the boil. As the amount of pus increases, pain may become more intense.

A boil may feel tender to the touch or hurt constantly. You may notice itching at the site of the boil before it forms. Depending on the extent of the infection, you may also develop a fever and/or fatigue.

A boil usually appears in one of the following areas:

  • Face
  • Neck
  • Armpit
  • Buttocks
  • Thighs


A cyst is a closed, saclike tissue pocket that forms under the skin. It usually contains keratin. There are hundreds of types of cysts. Epidermoid cysts are the most common cysts that develop under the skin.

These cysts appear as smooth lumps that are whitish-yellow or the color of your skin. They can range in size from one-half inch to several inches across. A cyst is usually painless and may not require treatment.

Boil vs. Cyst : What Are the Differences? (2)

A cyst is usually benign (noncanerous). It is painless and doesn't cause other symptoms unless it affects the normal function of the body system. Skin cysts usually appear in one of the following areas:

  • Scalp
  • Face
  • Trunk
  • Upper back
  • Groin area


  • Swollen, fast-growing red skin bump

  • Filled with whitest-yellow colored pus

  • Painful to the touch and/or constantly sore

  • White or yellow head filled with pus

  • Possible fatigue and/or fever


  • Round, slow-growing skin bump

  • Filled with a yellow, foul-smelling keratin

  • Swollen, warm to the touch, painless

  • White or yellow color with a blackhead

  • No related fever or fatigue

When to Worry vs. Not Worry About Lumps Under Your Skin

Causes of Boils vs. Cysts

The causes of a boil and a cyst differ. A boil is caused by an infection, while a cyst is not.


A boil develops from an infection of a hair follicle and the surrounding tissue. The most common source of infection is a staph infection caused by the Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacterium. The infection causes the skin tissue inside the boil to die. Then, a pus-filled hollow space, called an abscess, develops within or just below the skin's surface.

Most people have S. aureus bacteria on their skin and in areas like the lining of their noses without boils recurring. Boils are more likely to develop in people with the following characteristics:

  • Weakened immune systems
  • Chronic medical conditions like diabetes or cancer
  • Eczema
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Specific allergies like allergic asthma

A boil is contagious when a break in the skin and person-to-person contact with pus drainage and skin bacteria occurs. It may also spread from contact with contaminated surfaces and objects.


The skin cells in the outermost layer of your skin, called the epidermis, slowly shed as newer cells move to the surface of your skin. Cysts are formed when the surface skin is folded in on itself. Dead skin then fills the cyst, and it can't be shed the way it is elsewhere on the body. When a cyst reaches a certain size, it usually stops growing.

What Is the Difference Among a Boil, a Cyst, and a Pimple?

A pimple occurs when dead skin cells, excess oil, and bacteria get trapped inside a pore. As the bacteria multiply, they cause inflammation, and a pimple forms on the skin's surface.

A pimple is typically painless and smaller than either a boil or a cyst. It usually grows no larger than the size of a dime and does not increase much in size after it erupts.

While a pimple often occurs in clusters, a cyst or boil usually appears as a single lump. Unlike a cyst or boil, a pimple may be a sign of acne, a chronic condition that recurs despite treatment of one pimple.

Diagnosing Boils vs. Cysts

Only a healthcare provider can make an accurate diagnosis of your skin bump. Your healthcare provider may be able to recognize a boil or cyst based on the appearance of the bump and a description of your symptoms.

Factors such as when you first noticed the bump, how quickly it grew, whether it has changed in size, and if it is painful can help make a diagnosis.

Depending on the symptoms of your skin bump, your healthcare provider may perform the following laboratory tests. These tests may be performed if you often get boils, have several boils at the same time, or have a high risk of complications from a boil or cyst:

  • A tissue sample (scraping or biopsy of a cyst to identify an infection, benign tumor, or cancer)
  • Blood test to identify whether the infection has spread
  • Pus swab to find out the type of bacteria causing the infection and which antibiotics will work best

Bone Marrow Biopsy: Purpose and Results

How Do You Treat Boils vs. Cysts?

A boil or cyst can heal on its own without treatment. However, if your lump is causing pain, fever, inflammation, and/or interference with other body systems, such as vision or mobility, it can make a wait-and-see approach intolerable. Your healthcare provider can determine whether treatment can help promote healing, relieve pain, and reduce your risk of complications.

If you have a boil or cyst, you may be able to treat it at home with the following techniques:

  • Apply a warm moist compress on the boil or cyst for 10 to 15 minutes, three to four times daily, until the boil releases pus and heals.
  • Take Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) to reduce fever and/or pain.
  • Wash your hands before touching the boil or cyst.
  • Keep the boil or cyst and the area surrounding it clean.
  • Cover your boil or cyst with a sterile bandage or gauze to prevent infection if it bursts.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) warns that you should never squeeze or pierce a boil or cyst yourself. Doing this risks the possibility of spreading an infection from a boil. If the abscess bursts inside your body, there is a risk of blood poisoning (septicemia). If you squeeze, puncture, or lance a cyst, you can risk infecting it, and the cyst may become a boil.

A dermatologist may have to surgically drain a deep or large boil or cyst due to infection, inflammation, or aesthetics. Treatment of a boil involves lancing the abscess, draining the pus, and removing the infected material.

A problematic cyst can be treated with simple excision (surgical removal) of the cyst and cyst wall. This prevents the cyst from recurring. The procedure can also be performed with a minimally invasive technique that removes the cyst through a small hole.

Consult your healthcare provider if you have a boil or cyst with the following symptoms:

  • A fever, fatigue, or other signs of illness
  • Pain or discomfort from the boil
  • Location on your spine or in the middle of your face
  • Duration of longer than one week
  • Red streak through the bump
  • Returns after healing

If your boil is severe or it comes back after healing, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

Skin Boil First Aid Treatment

Preventing Boils vs. Cysts

You may be able to prevent boils by taking the following precautions:

  • Avoid wearing tight clothing that can cause friction on the skin and cause a hair follicle to swell up, starting an infection.
  • Wash boil-prone areas with soapy water often.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after touching or treating a boil.
  • Avoid sharing personal items like towels, bedding, or razors to prevent the spread of infection.

There is no known technique for preventing skin cysts. However, you can prevent potential infection and scarring of a cyst if you avoid squeezing, popping, lancing, or trying to drain the cyst yourself. Doing this increases the risk of inflammation or infection.


Boils and cysts are two common types of skin bumps. They can look alike even though their causes differ.

A boil is caused by a bacterial infection that affects a hair follicle and the tissue around it. A cyst occurs when skin cells grow and then can't reach the surface and become blocked below the skin.

While both skin lumps may heal without treatment, home care or surgery to remove the boil or cyst may be needed. Treatment for a boil can involve using antibiotics to treat the infection. A cyst usually doesn't need treatment unless it causes pain or prevents you from doing normal tasks.

Proper handwashing is one way to reduce the risk of boils and the spread of infection that occurs with them. There is no known way to prevent a cyst. Removing the cyst prevents it from recurring.

Boil vs. Cyst : What Are the Differences? (2024)


What is the difference between a cyst and boil? ›

Cysts and boils can look similar, but they are not the same. A boil results from a bacterial infection. It is red and swollen and contains pus, like a pimple. A cyst is under the skin and is usually painless, but it can resemble a boil if it ruptures or becomes infected.

How to tell the difference between an abscess and a boil and a cyst? ›

In the case of a small abscess on the skin, it may also be called a boil or boil. The main differences in specific symptoms are: The cyst grows slowly and is usually painless, unless it grows large. In contrast, an abscess is painful, uncomfortable, often red, and swollen.

What hurts more cysts or boils? ›

The main difference between a cyst and a boil is that a boil is a bacterial or fungal infection, and is more likely to be painful.

How do you know if its a boil or not? ›

Signs and symptoms of a boil usually include: A painful, red bump that starts out small and can enlarge to more than 2 inches (5 centimeters) Reddish or purplish, swollen skin around the bump. An increase in the size of the bump over a few days as it fills with pus.

Should you pop a boil or cyst? ›

Put warm, moist, compresses on the boil several times a day to speed draining and healing. Never squeeze a boil or try to cut it open at home. This can spread the infection. Continue to put warm, wet, compresses on the area after the boil opens.

Are cysts painful to touch? ›

Cysts can feel tender to the touch, and a person may be able to move one easily. Tumors can also grow almost anywhere in the body. They tend to grow quickly and are usually firm to the touch. It is possible to have cysts and tumors in the same organ.

Is a cyst hard or soft? ›

Cysts feel like soft blisters when they are close to the skin's surface, but they can feel like hard lumps when they develop deeper beneath the skin. A hard cyst near to the surface of the skin usually contains trapped dead skin cells or proteins.

Is A boil hard or soft? ›

A boil is a hard and painful lump that fills with pus. Most boils go away on their own.

How do you get rid of a cyst or boil? ›

You can generally treat small boils at home by applying warm compresses to relieve pain and promote natural drainage. For larger boils and carbuncles, treatment may include: Incision and drainage. Your doctor may drain a large boil or carbuncle by making an incision in it.

Can touching a boil make it worse? ›

You may be tempted to pop or lance a boil at home, but do not do this. This can spread infection and make the boil worse. Your boil may contain bacteria that could be dangerous if not properly treated. If your boil is painful or isn't healing, have it checked by a healthcare professional.

Do boils hurt when pressed? ›

The boil may hurt only when you touch it or it may be quite painful all of the time. Lymph nodes near the boil may also swell. You are most likely to notice swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin area.

Will the core of a boil come out by itself? ›

Many people's first instinct is to want to open and drain their boil at home. Never try to cut or squeeze open a boil yourself. With time, the boil may open on its own naturally. Draining can often be safely accomplished using only hot compresses, sanitary techniques, and proper bandaging.

Can you squeeze out a boil? ›

A person should never try to squeeze or burst a boil, as this can cause the infection to spread to other areas of the body. It may also result in scarring. If a boil is particularly big, persistent, or accompanied by other symptoms, a person should see their doctor.

Why shouldn't you squeeze a boil? ›

When the boil bursts, cover it with sterile gauze or a dressing. This is to prevent the spread of infection. Afterwards, wash your hands thoroughly using hot water and soap. Never squeeze or pierce a boil because it could spread the infection.

Is it OK to touch a boil? ›

Do not squeeze boils as this may cause the infection to spread. If the sores spread or get worse, or you become unwell with fever, see your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics (by mouth or as an ointment).

Can rubbing alcohol get rid of boils? ›

Keeping the boil clean

Experts also recommend: using antiseptic or antibacterial soap daily for 1 week, then twice weekly for several weeks. using 70% isopropyl alcohol diluted in water daily for 1 week after the boil forms.

How do you ripen a boil quickly? ›

Soak a washcloth in warm water and then press it gently against the boil for about 10 minutes. You can repeat this a few times throughout the day. Once you see the pus at the center (that's called “bringing a boil to a head,” it'll probably burst and drain soon.

What can you put on a boil to draw it out? ›

Compresses and ointments

In this phase, doctors usually recommend applying a warm, moist, antiseptic compress (a cloth pad held in place by a bandage) or a special ointment that draws (pulls) pus out of the boil.

What can I put on a cyst to draw it out? ›

  1. Hot compress. Simple heat is the most recommended and effective home measure for draining or shrinking cysts. ...
  2. Tea tree oil. Essential oil from the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) may help some cysts, albeit in an indirect way. ...
  3. Apple cider vinegar. ...
  4. Aloe vera. ...
  5. Castor oil. ...
  6. Witch hazel. ...
  7. Honey. ...
  8. Turmeric.

Should I press down on a cyst? ›

Although it's tempting, remember to avoid manipulating or squeezing the cyst. If you've had a sebaceous cyst removed, follow your doctor's instructions to keep the area clean and dry. If you have infection symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.

Should you rub a cyst? ›

Massage directly onto the cyst is discouraged, as this may cause your client pain and may even cause the cyst to swell to a larger size. If the cyst is irritating the client and they are coming to you to treat it, you must refer them to their healthcare practitioner.

How do you know if it's just a cyst? ›

Check if it's a skin cyst
  • are round lumps just underneath the skin.
  • often contain fluid or pus.
  • sometimes have a small, dark spot in the middle.
  • grow slowly and vary in size from smaller than a pea to several centimetres across.

When should I be worried about a cyst? ›

A cyst may need further treatment if it becomes: Inflamed and swollen -- the provider may inject the cyst with steroid medicine. Swollen, tender, or large -- the provider may drain the cyst or do surgery to remove it. Infected -- you may be prescribed antibiotics to take by mouth.

What happens if you squeeze a cyst too hard? ›

Most cysts are practically impossible to pop by squeezing or picking at them with your fingers. In the process of trying to pop it, you can end up sending bacteria and sebum below the hair follicles. This can cause the materials to spread even further and result in more cysts.

What does it mean when a boil hardens? ›

A boil is a localized infection in the skin that begins as a reddened, tender area. Over time, the area becomes firm, hard, and increasingly tender. Eventually, the center of the boil softens and becomes filled with infection-fighting white blood cells from the bloodstream to eradicate the infection.

Does a boil feel like a ball? ›

A boil starts as a hard, red, painful lump about the size of a pea.

Is Neosporin good for boils? ›

There are no OTC antibiotics appropriate for treating a boil. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, using OTC antibiotic ointment — such as Neosporin, bacitracin, or Polysporin — on your boil is ineffective because the medication won't penetrate the infected skin.

What kills boils fast? ›

Warm compresses

In reality, when white blood cells cluster, it allows the body's immune system to destroy the bacteria that are causing the infection. Heat is one of the best ways to treat boils. Apply a warm compress to the affected area for 20 minutes. Repeat 3-4 times per day as needed until the boil is gone.

How do you make a boil go away without draining? ›

If you plan on caring for your own boil at home, try not to pop it. This can force bacteria even deeper. Instead, apply a warm, wet washcloth for 20 to 30 minutes up to five times a day. Continue applying heat until the boil opens on its own.

How do you get a boil to come to your head? ›

Apply a hot compress for 10 minutes or so, three times daily, to encourage the boil to come to a head. Cover a burst boil with a bandaid. Wash your hands thoroughly to prevent the spread of infection. Use fresh towels every time you wash and dry the infected areas.

Should you cover a boil or let it breathe? ›

Do cover it with clean, dry dressings: The idea is to contain any drainage. Boils are hotbeds of bacteria and easily spread to other areas and other people. Change dressings frequently, especially if it's oozing.

Is it best to leave a boil alone? ›

A boil or carbuncle should never be squeezed or pricked with a pin or sharp object to release the pus and fluid. This can spread the infection to other parts of your skin. If left alone, a boil will break and drain on its own over time. In certain cases, a doctor may need to cut into your skin to drain the pus.

Can a boil spread if it pops? ›

It is important not to squeeze or pop boils, as this can be very painful and can spread the infection.

Why do I keep getting boils on my private area? ›

Boils near the vagina are caused by bacteria that enter through the skin and infect a hair follicle. Keeping your genital area clean and practicing good hygiene is the best way to prevent recurring boils. If you shave your pubic area with a razor, change your razor often.

What is your body lacking when you get boils? ›

Other medical conditions or lifestyle factors that make people more likely to get boils include: iron deficiency anemia.

Are cysts hard or soft? ›

Cysts feel like soft blisters when they are close to the skin's surface, but they can feel like hard lumps when they develop deeper beneath the skin. A hard cyst near to the surface of the skin usually contains trapped dead skin cells or proteins.

How do you treat a cyst or boil? ›

The treatment for a boil is incision and drainage of the pus or abscess. Like an infected cyst, the skin is numbed with an anesthetic, and the area over the boil is opened to drain the pus. The opened area may be washed out with sterile salt water during the procedure.

How do I get rid of a boil quickly? ›

How do you get rid of a boil fast overnight? Apply warm compresses to boils for 20 minutes during the day. Over night, apply antibiotic cream, castor oil, or neem oil to help draw out the infection and allow the body to heal. While this may not lead to the boil going away overnight, it will help it heal faster.

What remedy draws out a boil? ›

The safest, easiest way to remove a boil at home is to use a warm compress to speed up the natural drainage process. Warmth increases the pressure in the infected pore as it slowly draws pus and blood to the surface of the skin.

What will draw pus out of a cyst? ›

Hot compress

Simple heat is the most recommended and effective home measure for draining or shrinking cysts. Here's how it works: Heat may reduce the thickness of liquid in the cyst. In the case of liquid-filled epidermoid cysts, this may help fluid drain quicker into the lymphatic system.

How do you tell if a lump is a cyst? ›

The best test to determine whether a cyst or tumor is benign or malignant is a biopsy. This procedure involves removing a sample of the affected tissue — or, in some cases, the entire suspicious area — and studying it under a microscope. Karthik Giridhar, M.D.

Will Vicks draw out a boil? ›

Vicks VapoRub

Applied directly to an HS spot, VapoRub works for temporary pain relief. Two of its active ingredients – menthol and camphor – are mild analgesics (pain relievers) and are used in anti-itch lotions. VapoRub also helps abscesses to rupture and drain, which provides more pain relief.

How do you shrink a boil overnight? ›

How do I get rid of a boil overnight? There's no way to completely get rid of a boil overnight. However, warm compresses, application of antibiotic cream, or use of creams made of natural remedies may help to lessen its severity and provide temporary relief to pain as it heals.

Can you put Neosporin on a boil? ›

There are no OTC antibiotics appropriate for treating a boil. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, using OTC antibiotic ointment — such as Neosporin, bacitracin, or Polysporin — on your boil is ineffective because the medication won't penetrate the infected skin.

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