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Don’t let bacteria get under your skin

Many skin conditions become worse during the winter months for a variety of reasons: reduced sunlight; fewer fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet; larger temperature fluctuations while getting in and out of your rig; and extra layers of...

Many skin conditions become worse during the winter months for a variety of reasons: reduced sunlight; fewer fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet; larger temperature fluctuations while getting in and out of your rig; and extra layers of clothing rubbing against your skin.

When you add bacteria to these factors, you create the perfect environment for developing a boil or carbuncle. Boils and carbuncles are painful, pus-filled bumps that form under your skin, usually because bacteria (staphylococcus or streptococcus) have infected and inflamed one or more of your hair follicles.

Boils typically begin as red, tender lumps about the size of a pea. These lumps quickly fill with pus, growing larger and more painful until they rupture and drain. If not attended to, boils can reach the size of a golf ball.

A carbuncle, a deep cluster of boils, forms a connected area of infection under the skin in a pattern similar to the trunk and roots of a short tree.

Although boils can erupt anywhere on your skin, they usually appear on your neck, face, buttocks or thighs; warm, moist places that sweat, or that experience friction from clothing. In contrast, a carbuncle typically develops on your shoulders, thighs or the back of your neck. Because carbuncles trigger a deeper and more severe infection, they often take longer to develop and to heal; and they often leave scars.

Both conditions are caused by bacteria penetrating the protective layer of your skin, leading to infection.

Occasionally infected injuries, such as cuts or scrapes, or even splinters can cause boils. However, hair follicles are the most common sites for developing them.  Skin or tight clothing rubbing hair on the surface of the skin creates an ideal opportunity for bacteria to migrate down a hair and get trapped in the hair follicle, leading to infection.

Because staphylococcus (staph) is extremely contagious, when you come in close contact with someone who has a boil, carbuncle or other staph infection, you are quite likely to develop a boil yourself. Other factors also increase your chances, like existing health conditions such as chronic kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes.

Dermatitis or acne already demonstrates that your body is not effectively fighting infection. Similarly, a compromised immune system, poor nutrition and/or exposure to harsh chemicals increase your risk.

Since staph infections can spread via objects as well as from person to person, it is important to be cautious in locations used by others. Avoid sharing or borrowing personal items, such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment.
If you have a cut or sore, wash your towels and linens using hot water and detergent with added bleach. Then, dry them in a hot dryer.

Although quite painful, boils and carbuncles are not often serious and can usually be successfully treated at home. Applying a warm, wet compress to the infected area for 10 to 15 minutes three times a day should help draw out the infection within a few days.

As well, washing the affected area with antibacterial soap will promote healing and reduce the chance of spreading infection. Keeping the infected area covered with a sterile dressing will also contain the germs. Don’t poke or lance the boil. Just allow it to drain naturally, while keeping the affected area clean and dressed with an antibacterial ointment.

Diligently practice good hygiene surrounding the treatment. Wash your hands thoroughly with an antibacterial soap before and after treatment. As well, be sure to separate, handle and launder any washcloths, towels or clothing that comes in contact with the infected area.

Even though boils and carbuncles are not usually dangerous and don’t usually lead to complications, one possible and potentially serious complication is blood poisoning.

This can occur if the bacteria migrate to your bloodstream and then are transported to other parts of your body. Untreated, blood poisoning can infect vital areas, such as your heart and bone. In extreme cases, blood poisoning, accompanied by symptoms of high fever, rapid breathing and increased heart rate, can lead to septic shock; a life-threatening condition.

To avoid this serious complications, be sure to see your doctor if you’ve treated your boil for a week and it still hasn’t resolved.

You should also seek medical advice in these particular situations: if your boil is extremely large and painful; if you have a fever and chills; if red streaks begin extending from the boil; if the boil is located on your face or spine; if you have swollen lymph nodes; or, if you are diabetic and over 65 years old.

Certainly, if you keep getting boils repeatedly, you may need antibiotics for an undiagnosed infection.

Good nutrition with a clean, healthy, active lifestyle is your best defense against boils and carbuncles. Take care of yourself. Don’t let bacteria get under your skin.

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