Carbuncles, Furuncles and Boils – Oh My! Fighting Infections of the Skin

Red, swollen, itchy and painful skin.

It irks us and causes us to worry about our health, our appearance and our environment. We question: Did I hit myself? Am I allergic to something? Did something bite me?

We hear on the news that there are flesh-eating bacteria and killer boils. Our neighbor is in the hospital for an infection – should we worry?

Relax. Our skin is the largest organ in our body and is well-suited to the task of keeping bacteria where it belongs – outside of our body.

We’re constantly in contact with bacteria. Some bacteria even live on our skin full time. Strep and staph species are the most common organisms. Also common are a variety of fungi that enjoy the warm, moist folds of our body. When there is balance, these hitchhikers cause no problems.

But when we have high bacterial counts on the skin, get cut, get stressed, are sick for another reason, scratch at a bug bite, pick at a pimple, stay in a wet bathing suit too long or use a lot of sticky lotions on our skin, the balance can shift and infection may result.

Most of the infections that occur as a result of these imbalances are caused by the usual culprits – yes, those hitchhikers – strep and staph. They burrow into cuts, scratches, bites, burns, hair roots and other places that you cannot even see, and they multiply like crazy! The skin inflames trying to get rid of the bacteria – it swells and gets red and hot, trying to stop the infection. Most of the time in a few days, it goes away. Sometimes you need to see a physician for antibiotics, and occasionally hospitalization is necessary to completely get rid of the infection.

With all of this scary stuff out there, how can we help the skin do a better job protecting us?

Unfortunately, there is no medication or injection that we can take to get rid of the bacteria on our body. Even if we are exposed to someone with a skin disease, there is no scientific evidence that taking a pill will prevent us from getting the same disease.

Prevention of skin infections requires a more conscious and active approach on our parts. Remember, you are exposed to bacteria everywhere in your life from the cup you are drinking from to your keyboard. Healthcare professionals and public servants should also be aware of weapons, badges, belts, uniforms, notepads and stethoscopes.

What can you do to help?

1. Stay healthy. Eat right, rest, exercise, avoid tobacco, use alcohol in moderation. Keep chronic illnesses like diabetes under control.
2. Use hand sanitizer liberally.
3. Wash your hands with soap often.
4. Wipe down phones, desktops, keyboards, stethoscopes, pens and other accessories regularly with sanitizer wipes.
5. Change clothes at work or as soon as you get home to avoid contamination of the household.
6. Bacteria can get trapped on the skin by oils and clothing. Avoid soaps and body washes that have moisturizers.
7. Change loofah-type sponges often to avoid trapped bacteria. If your skin gets dry, use a moisturizer after you shower only on the areas that need it.

Do all that you can, and if you have a red, angry skin lesion that worries you, do not hesitate to let a physician evaluate you. We are happy to help.

— Debra Cooper, DO, Managing Physician for U.S. HealthWorks

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