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Boil vs. Pimple—Similarities, Differences, and How to Diagnose

Do you have a boil or a pimple? It can be tough to tell the difference between a boil vs. pimple, but knowing which one you have is important. This article will compare and contrast boils and pimples, including their symptoms and treatment options.

What Is a Boil?

Boils are commonly mistaken for pimples and acne, as they also start as red spots that will begin to form in the pores, where hair follicles are meant to start growing. However, boils will begin to fill with pus and grow in size over time.

A cluster of boils in one area is known as a carbuncle, as these form in areas of the body that experience sweating the most or where your clothing is more likely to rub against your skin. Unlike pimples, boils are more likely to grow in areas including the inner thighs, underarms, and buttocks, whereas pimples and acne are more prevalent on the face, neck, back, and arms.

What Is a Pimple?

Example of pimples

Pimples, which are another name for and are a common symptom of acne, come in many forms. They can vary in size, but as they begin to fade, pimples can leave scars on the skin. Pimples can scar worse and leave dark marks if you pick at or pop them as well.

Pimples begin formation in the pores of your skin and can happen in any area of the body. Pores are openings in the skin that are open for hair follicles, yet instead of hair growing, dead skin cells find their way into pores.

Acne and pimples can also happen for several reasons and are not limited to those in their teenage years.

Common Types of Acne Mistaken for Boils


Example of blackheads

With blackheads, this type of acne is visible and is a result of dirt being trapped in the infected hair follicles, along with dead skin cells.


These are often regarded as a more painful type of acne, as whiteheads form under a deeper layer of skin. Similar to boils, whiteheads are called just that because they are closed at the top and filled with pus, which is a combination of white blood cells and bacteria. This is a common type of acne that confuses many of the differences between boils and pimples.


This type is recognized as hard red or pink bumps on the skin. Papules often feel sore to the touch and are one of the types to be common in cases of persistent acne breakouts.


As the name suggests, pustules are like papules, only that they are hard bumps that fill with pus.


Similar to whiteheads, nodules grow in deeper levels of the skin, yet are simply hard lumps that are not filled with pus.


Cysts are filled with pus, but are actually soft and often large in size.

Causes of Boils and Pimples

There are many risk factors that play a role in the formation of boils or pimples, and many cannot be simply washed away with facial cleansers and a warm compress. To prevent boils and severe acne from forming, let’s review the different causes of boils and pimples.


Bacteria is a prime cause for both boils and pimples

Both boils and pimples form as a result of a hair follicle pore being clogged with bacteria. Pimples form from more than just bacteria, however, rather than boils that form due to a bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, and other similar bacteria. Boils are recognized more as a bacterial infection.

Health Issues

If you are living with a compromised immune system, diabetes, or other similar health conditions, your skin will be at a higher risk of severe infection, meaning more severe acne or boils. These types of health issues can also make the treatment process tricky, so it’s recommended to contact a board-certified dermatologist to help you figure out a treatment plan.


If you have parents or siblings that struggled or are struggling with boils and acne, then there is a higher chance of you also developing boils and pimples.


Washing your face helps to clear up acne

Lack of proper hygiene allows more time for dirt and bacteria to fester in each hair follicle and pore on your body. So, boils becomes easier to form, and acne can start or become more severe.

Skin Conditions

Having skin conditions, including eczema, can increase your likelihood of forming both boils and pimples. If you take steroids or any other medication for your skin, these can also stimulate reactions that create boils and pimples.

Symptoms of Boil vs. Pimple

Boil Symptoms

Example of boils
  • Red bump on the skin that enlarges
  • Fever and chills
  • Drainage of pus from the boil
  • Pain and tenderness
  • Skin redness

Pimple Symptoms

A boil vs pimple can vary in symptoms and severity
  • Small black spots on the skin
  • Small white papules
  • Red papules or pustules
  • Large, hard, red sore nodules beneath the skin
  • Dark spots/scars on the skin after the pimple have healed

Treatment of a Boil vs. Pimple

How to Treat a Boil?

Boils aren’t as simple to treat as pimples can be, as they require medical attention. This is because if topical antibiotics or oral antibiotics do not work, then the dermatologist might need to resort to lesions, which help to drain and shrink the boil. After that, the doctor can offer a plan to treat boils.

How to Treat a Pimple?

The treatment of pimples is a bit more varied than boils, mostly due to the causes of acne and types of acne being broader than boils. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are two common compounds found in most acne treatments, including face washes, acne masks, and so on.

In cases of severe acne, then a dermatologist may prescribe oral antibiotics in cases of infections, but generally, over-the-counter treatments help to ease most cases of acne.

Prevention of Boil vs. Pimple

Boil Prevention

Practice good hygiene. Wash regularly with soap and water and keep your skin clean.

If exposed to someone with a boil or skin infection, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.

Don’t share razors, towels, bathing suits, underwear, or other personal items.

If you notice a boil, do not attempt to pop or break it since you risk spreading germs.

See your doctor for treatment if you have more than one boil or a recurrence of boils.

Wounds on the skin should be cleaned thoroughly and treated to minimize the development of infection.

Pimple Prevention

Keep your skin clean. Wash your face with a mild cleanser specifically designed for acne-prone skin.

Use cosmetics that are oil-free or noncomedogenic, which will not clog pores.

If you have oily hair, wash it often with a shampoo designed for oily hair. Consult your doctor or dermatologist if your zits or acne are bad or persistent.

When Should I See a Dermatologist?

A dermatologist examining a woman's forehead

Whether you are struggling with treating boils or pimples, seeing a dermatologist can help in either case. However, in all boil cases, it is highly recommended to see a dermatologist. It’s also good to see a dermatologist have a baseline and learn more about your skin, as it’s one of the largest and most vulnerable organs of the human body.

A dermatologist can help you learn more about the risk factors you may be predisposed to, which can help you to catch boils or pimples before they reach severe infectious levels.

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