Boil vs. Cyst: Telling the Difference & Understanding Prevention and Treatment

While the skin is prone to develop several lumps and bumps, boils and cysts are the more common varieties of skin ailments you might encounter. Boils are infections centered around and arising from hair follicles, and they're also referred to as furuncles. On the other hand, what causes cysts is still not understood comprehensively. Cysts are not infections and might develop from rapidly multiplying skin cells, so they’re not commonly associated with pain. However, if they get infected and become inflamed, they cause pain and discomfort that can confuse you about whether it’s a boil or a cyst. This makes it essential to understand the differences between a boil vs. cyst and what sets them apart. 

Understanding the difference between a boil and a cyst will help you address both these lumps on the skin with necessary self-care, and help you approach the doctor when it’s time to get a medical opinion. We discuss the various distinguishing features that set apart a boil from a cyst, and also compare these two skin conditions to other common lumps such as pimples to outline the difference between a boil vs. pimple vs. cyst to clarify any confusion. 

boil vs pimple vs cyst

What is a Boil?

  • A boil often appears as a painful bump on the skin that’s filled with white or yellow pus.

  • Boils are caused by the infection of hair follicles by a genus of bacteria called Staphylococcus, or staph. 

  • The bacteria, though commonly present on the skin and within the nostrils, can become an opportunistic pathogen in some cases, leading to infections such as boils. 

  • While staph is the most common cause of boils, certain varieties of fungi also can cause boils on the skin. 

  • Boils often appear as red, angry-looking bumps on the skin that are rounded and slowly fill up with pus. An important difference between a boil vs. cyst is that pain and warmth around the area are immediate symptoms in the case of boils. 

  • The redness, inflammation, and warmth arise from the body’s immunity in fighting against the bacteria. This is an important reason for the appearance of fever in individuals that develop a boil. 

  • Boils can grow in size, affecting the tissues deeper in the skin, and turn into an abscess. Abscesses are often accompanied by symptoms such as rigors, fever, and chills. 

  • Abscesses can be treated by draining the pus and by taking antibiotics prescribed by the doctor.

  • Boils can also appear on the eyelid, commonly called a stye, these boils cause considerable discomfort. 

  • As for the differences between a boil vs. pimple, the latter appears as bumps under the skin, eventually growing in size and developing a white peak or with a whitehead in the middle. 

  • Pimples form in the pores of the skin due to the collection of oil, sweat, grime, dust, and dead skin cells. This provides a perfect medium for bacteria to grow and multiply. 

  • An important difference between a boil vs. pimple. vs. cyst is that the pimple is only painful when pressure is applied to it. Popping pimples can lead to potentially permanent scars, which are aesthetic concerns when they appear on the face. 

  • Similarly, it is ill-advised to pop a boil as the bacteria causing it is infectious. Popping a boil forcefully can lead to an open sore, and cause contamination of the surfaces & clothing you come in contact with. These surfaces can spread the bacteria to other susceptible individuals. 

  • Boils can also form clusters. This is called a carbuncle. Carbuncles are painful, red, sore, and much larger than the average boil. Since they affect the deeper soft tissues, carbuncles are also more painful than the average boil. Like large boils, carbuncles too can cause fever, rigors, and chills due to the immune system trying to fight the infection. 

Where Do Boils Appear?

  • Since staph is present nearly all over the skin, the bacteria can make it into the deeper parts of the skin through cuts, scratches, and abrasions. 

  • The bacteria enter through a hair follicle and cause an infection of the soft tissues lying underneath. 

  • Boils are more common in areas of the body prone to friction and in some parts of the body where maintaining hygiene can be complicated for a few individuals. These include: 

    • Back 

    • Face 

    • Armpits 

    • Buttocks 

    • Breasts

    • Thighs

    • Groin

Management of Boils & Their Prevention

  • It’s important to not pop boils as it might increase the risk of spreading the bacteria to both other locations on the body as well as to other people. 

  • Boils are fairly easy to manage with home care and are sometimes even self-resolving in about two weeks. Boils often need to open up and drain before they can heal. 

  • Applying a warm compress to the boil can help loosen the pores in the area. This allows the boil to break on its own and drain out. The healing process can begin once the pus has drained entirely. 

  • Placing a clean, antiseptic bandage over the boil can also help. 

  • Though boils are bacterial infections, oral antibiotics are not the immediate choice. 

  • Topical antibiotic ointments can also be applied at a doctor’s suggestion to help improve healing. 

  • Cleaning the area regularly also aids the body in fighting the infection. 

  • In case the boil does not break on its own, it can become an abscess. Boils that do not heal require draining. The doctor might place a small incision on the boil to drain the pus out, this will then be followed by a thorough cleaning of the area and an antiseptic dressing. 

  • Depending on how large the boil or the abscess is, your doctor might prescribe oral antibiotics in addition to topical ointments to help your body fight the infection. 

  • Boils are best prevented by maintaining good hygiene. Wash your hands regularly, and avoid touching people’s personal belongings that might contain potentially infectious bacteria such as razors and towels. Also, avoid sharing these items with others. 

  • Disinfect surfaces and equipment in public spaces such as gyms before and after you use them. 

  • Keep cuts and scrapes away from dirt and avoid touching them with unwashed hands. Apply antiseptic and keep the areas with cuts and scrapes clean. 

  • Use washed and clean clothing, linen, and towels. 

  • See a doctor if your boil consistently grows in size, does not heal, causes excessive pain, and is persistent for over 2 weeks. Also, get in touch with your doctor if you see recurring boils appear on your body. 

  • Your doctor might collect a sample of the drained pus from a boil in case you have a recurring issue with boils and send it for staph bacteria testing.

What is a Cyst?

  • Cysts or skin cysts are sacs filled with fluid, semifluid or solid material. Cysts can also be filled with blood or air. These lumps too, can develop on any part of the body. 

  • An important difference between a boil vs. cyst is that the latter is smooth and not red, unlike a boil. Unless a cyst becomes infected, it does not cause any pain or discomfort. 

  • Cysts have a well-defined lining that’s made either of skin cells or other types of epidermal cells. 

  • Cysts are often slow-growing lumps that can appear just about anywhere on the body, as opposed to areas prone to friction as in the case of boils - another difference between a boil and a cyst. 

  • Cysts are of many different types. Some of them are listed below: 

    • Epidermoid Cysts: These cysts appear when the pores of the skin get filled up with excess keratin - a tough protein commonly found in hair, nails, and the upper layers of the skin. They’re also called sebaceous cysts since they’re primarily formed by the sebaceous/sweat glands. They’re more common in men than in women and can appear on the face, torso, or neck. 

    • Pilar Cysts/Wens: More common in women, these cysts are commonly found on the scalp due to the accumulation of keratin in hair follicles. 

    • Milia: Milia are commonly confused with whiteheads, and tend to appear on the face or near the mouth. Milia look like small white bumps and are more common in young children. They’re self-resolving and disappear after some time. 

  • Cysts are usually movable since they’re present within the movable layers of the skin. 

  • Though doctors don’t completely understand the exact cause of cysts, potential explanations are linked to heredity and environmental reasons. Cysts are also associated with disorders such as Gorlin-Goltz Syndrome and Gardner’s syndrome

  • Unlike boils, cysts do not cause symptoms like fever unless they’re infected by bacteria. 

  • Cysts are also closely linked to injury, exposure to UV light, and viruses such as HPV (human papillomavirus). 

  • Cysts, especially sebaceous cysts are usually larger than the regular boil or pimple, a point to note when considering the differences between a boil vs. pimple vs. cyst. 

difference between a boil and a cyst

Where do Cysts Appear?

  • While cysts can appear anywhere on the body, they’re more likely to appear on the head, scalp, face, and neck. 

  • Their association with hair follicles and sweat glands makes them more common in areas where these structures are in abundance. 

  • Certain types of cysts can also appear in the jaws, chest, lower back, and groin. 

  • Cysts can also appear on the vulva in women. These are called Bartholin cysts and are quite common. They’re formed from the Bartholin glands that produce fluid to lubricate the vagina, as opposed to a vulvar boil which is an infection of a hair follicle. This is an essential difference between a vulvar boil vs. cyst. Understanding the differences between a boil vs. cyst on the vagina can also help with addressing sexual health concerns. 

Management of Cysts

  • Several cysts tend to be self-resolving and are often harmless, however, due to aesthetic concerns, doctors remove cysts surgically. Cysts can be filled with foul-smelling keratin in case their origin is from sebaceous glands or hair follicles. 

  • Though not commonly treated with antibiotics, doctors may recommend oral antibiotics and topical ointments to manage secondary infections on the cyst that can cause pain and pus discharge. 

  • Treatment can also involve the drainage of the cyst fluid and the complete removal of the cyst’s lining. Remnants of the lining are linked to the recurrence of these cysts. 

  • Cysts cannot be prevented as their cause is not completely understood, however, it is strongly recommended to not try and pop the cyst as it might expose the cyst to infections. 

boil vs cyst

Boils and cysts, though common lumps on the skin, can become causes of concern for many people. In case you’re worried about any of the symptoms mentioned above, make sure you reach out to a doctor.