Is That Spot a Pimple or a Boil? A Dermatologist Explains

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POPSUGAR Photography | Matthew Kelly
POPSUGAR Photography | Matthew Kelly

  • Much has been written about pimples, but the same can't be said for another skin condition: boils.
  • While the skin conditions present themselves similarly, they require different treatments.
  • We asked a dermatologist how to tell the difference between a boil and a pimple.

We've all been there: you're going about your daily routine when suddenly, there's an angry red bump looking at you in the mirror. It's red, it's painful, and it may have a white tip in the center.

You might be tempted to pop said bump, which is never a good idea. Not only can touching your skin introduce more bacteria to the area, but the bump may not be an acne blemish at all. Instead, it could be a boil, which looks similar but requires a completely different treatment.

Don't know how to tell a boil from a pimple? We asked board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, to break down the exact difference.

The Difference Between a Boil and a Pimple

Let's start with the basics. "A pimple, or acne, is an inflammatory process that starts with a clogged pore," Dr. King tells POPSUGAR. "Although bacteria may contribute to the inflammation, acne itself is not an infection."

Boils, on the other hand, are infections. "A boil, or furuncle, is a bacterial infection in the skin often caused by staph or strep bacteria," Dr. King says. "Staph" (also known as staphylococcus bacteria) and "strep" (streptococcus bacteria) are germs that are extremely common in the human body. The former is more commonly found on the skin and in the nose, and the latter is most often found on the skin or in the throat.

Both boils and pimples present themselves as red bumps that can be pus-filled, inflamed, and painful to the touch. It's likely a boil if the skin around the bump becomes increasingly painful, takes longer to heal, and continues to get bigger, despite your best efforts to treat it.

The Stages of a Boil

While not all boils are the same, there are some common symptoms you may be able to recognize. According to WebMD, a boil can start off small, but they are often painful and typically grow in size over the course of the infection. Signs of a severe infection include:

  • Infection in the area around the boil, with skin turning red, painful, warm, and swollen
  • More boils appearing around the original one.
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Boils aren't more common in any particular skin tone or type, but some people are more predisposed to getting them than others. "People colonized by more of the certain bacteria that causes boils are more likely to experience boils than others," Dr. King says. While there's way to tell at home whether you have more of that boil-causing bacteria, a good indicator is if you get boils quite often. To be sure, you can go to a doctor for a culture (a test used to identify whether you have a bacterial infection).

How to Differentiate a Pimple From a Boil

Now that you know the difference between a pimple and a boil, it's time to learn how to tell the difference. It all has to do with location. "Acne lesions are most commonly found in acne-prone areas of the skin, such as the face, neck, chest, upper back, and sometimes buttocks," Dr. King says. (The photo above is an example of acne lesions.)

"Furuncles (or boils) can happen anywhere," she says. "Furuncles are more likely to be painful, red, warm and, swollen, and to have pus." A good example is the image of a boil below.

The presenting symptoms of a boil may sound an awful lot like a cystic-acne flare-up, which is why it's important to know the difference: the treatments for boils and acne are different.

How to Treat a Boil

The reason you don't want to pop that mysterious bump is because boils aren't just clogged pores — they may require an actual treatment plan. "To treat a boil, it is highly recommended to see your board-certified dermatologist," Dr. King says. "This is because the lesion may need to be drained, and you may need a culture and oral antibiotics."

Now that you know the difference between a pimple and a boil, don't fret if you discover the latter while doing a skin check. Just follow the advice given by Dr. King, and you'll have an effective treatment plan in place in no time.