Symptoms and Signs of Boil vs. Pimple

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 8/24/2021

Doctor's Notes on Boil vs. Pimple

Boils and pimples are types of skin infections:

  • boil (abscess) is a pocket of infection in, and under, the skin. A boil may begin as a small infection or area of pus redness in a hair follicle, skin gland, or small open wound. Over several days, pus accumulates, and the boil begins to swell and becomes painful. 
  • pimple (also called whiteheads, blackheads, zits, and acne) is a small, localized infection, usually in a single oil gland in the skin. 

Symptoms of boils may include:

  • red bump on the skin that enlarges, 
  • fever and chills, 
  • drainage of pus from the boil, 
  • pain and tenderness, and 
  • skin redness. 

Symptoms of pimples may include: 

  • small black spots on the skin (blackheads),
  • bumps with small white pustules or papules (whiteheads),
  • large, hard, red sore nodules just under the skin surface (cystic acne), or 
  • dark spots or scars on the skin after the pimple has healed.

What Is the Treatment for Boils and Pimples?

Boils can be treated with heat application, drainage, or antibiotics:

  • The primary treatment for most boils is heat application, usually with hot or warm water soaks or warm compresses. After the boil becomes soft or forms a head, it can be ready to drain (lance). Most small boils, such as those that form around hairs, drain on their own with hot soaks. 
  • Sometimes, with larger boils, medical treatment is required. In this situation, the boil will need to be drained by a healthcare professional. 
  • Antibiotics may be used to eliminate any accompanying bacterial infection, but they are not needed in every case. 

Pimples are usually treated with over-the-counter remedies or medical treatments:

  • Over-the-counter face washes and creams that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide may help mild acne
  • If acne is more severe, a dermatologist can prescribe medications such as antibiotics, isotretinoin (Sotret, Myorisan, Amnesteem, Claravis, and Absorica), prescription-strength soaps or creams, or birth control pills (for women). 
  • Other medical treatments for acne include lasers or light therapy, chemical peels, or corticosteroid injections, but these are not part of most acne regimens.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.