Cyst Vs. Boil: How To Identify, Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Learn to differentiate between these two skin conditions to get the right treatment.

By Eshna DasEshna Das, Certified Skin Care Coach  • 

Found yourself lost and confused in the cyst vs. boil debate and have difficulty distinguishing between them? Don’t worry. We are here to help. Both are soft and painful bumps that develop under the skin and have a similar appearance. However, cysts grow slowly, and boils start as a small pimple-like bump and grow quickly. Moreover, boils are more painful and discomforting than cysts. Scroll through this article to learn more differences between cysts and boils, their symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

What Is A Cyst?

Woman's hand showing a cyst

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Cysts, also known as skin cysts, are small sacs filled with air, fluid, blood, or semi-solid substances that can develop inside or on any part of a person’s body. Depending on the lining of the cyst and the location, they can be divided into the following types (1).

  • Epidermoid Cysts: Also known as sebaceous cysts, these commonly develop on the neck, trunk, and face. One of the most common cysts found in middle-aged adults, especially male adults, these cysts form due to the skin follicles filling up with a protein called keratin (2)
  • Pilar Cysts: Commonly known as “wens”, pilar cysts develop on the scalp when hair follicles are clogged with keratin. Non-cancerous, these cysts are commonly found in young women and are attributed to a genetic history (3).
  • Milia: Another type of cyst formed due to the accumulation of keratin, milia often develops on the face. Mostly seen in infants and children, these cysts run their natural course and disappear on their own (4). Milia is characterized by small white bumps and can often be confused with whiteheads.
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Cysts are not known to hurt unless they get infected or burst open. They usually resolve on their own.

Now that you know what cysts are, let us get an understanding of what boils are and how they are different from cysts.

What Is A Boil?

Woman trying to push the boil

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Have you ever seen a red-colored pimple on your skin that looks angry and hurts badly? Chances are that it might be a boil. Medically known as furuncle, boils are fluid-filled bumps that develop due to bacterial infection. Usually, boils tend to go away on their own once the pus drains out from the growth (5).

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When boils form in close clusters over infected areas, they are called carbuncles. In rare severe cases, they may cause fever and chills.

From reading the above section, you can see that boils and cysts are two separate conditions that develop due to different factors. Let us look at the symptoms of each condition.

Cyst Vs. Boil Comparison Of The Symptoms

How do you differentiate between a cyst and a boil? Let us look at the symptoms of the two conditions that can help you identify the condition:

Cysts Boils
1. Round, slow-growing lump on the skin 1.Swollen, red bump on the skin
2. Filled with a yellow, foul-smelling keratin 2. Filled with yellow-colored pus
3. Swollen, not painful, and warm to touch 3. Painful touch and sore
4. White or yellow in color with a blackhead 4. White or yellow tip from which the pus drains
5. No fever or fatigue 5. Fatigue and fever

With the symptoms of cysts and boils stated above, we can move on to the next section which talks about the common places where boils and cysts appear.

What Are The Common Places For Boils And Cysts To Appear?

Skin infections can grow anywhere on the body

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Cysts and boils can develop anywhere on the body, but these are the most common places you will find a boil or a cyst.

  • Boils – Boils are most commonly found in areas that cause friction to your skin. These areas are the face, neck, back, armpits, genital area, thighs, and buttocks.
  • Cysts – While cysts develop inside and all over the body, you can commonly find skin cysts on the face, neck, scalp, upper back, chest, and genitals.

Both cysts and boils can develop all over the body. Knowing what they look like can be key to early diagnosis and treatment. But before we go into the treatment options, let us understand what are the factors that cause boils and cysts.

Cyst Vs. Boil – Causes

Woman overexposing her body to the sun can lead to cysts

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Let us look at the factors that cause you to develop a boil or a cyst.

  • Cysts – While more research is required to understand the causes behind cysts, researchers have suggested a few possible factors that can contribute to the development of cysts. These factors include a family history of cysts, overexposure to the sun, injury, and trauma (2). More scientific investigations need to be done to understand the different factors that may contribute to your risk of developing cysts. Researchers have suggested that having a genetic family history and old age may increase your risk (2).
  • Boils– Boils develop due to bacterial infection in your hair follicle. Found in the lining of nostrils and skin, staphylococcus aureus bacteria causes the skin around the cells to die and fill with pus. This leads to the development of boils (5). Studies have indicated that people with chronic diseases such as diabetes have been associated with a higher risk of developing boils (6). Research also suggests that being overweight and smoking are factors that lead to people repeatedly developing boils (7).

As you can see, cysts and boils develop due to different factors that allow medical professionals to easily diagnose them. Let’s read about factors that increase your risk of developing a boil or a cyst.

When To Consult A Doctor

If your boil or cyst does not seem to go away on its own and you experience symptoms such as fever and pain, then you should get it checked by a general physician. Early diagnosis and treatment can help speed the healing and recovery process. While cysts and boils do eventually go away on their own, they can get uncomfortable, in which case medical professionals can help.

Cyst Vs. Boil – What Are The Treatment Options Available?

Woman giving hot water compress to a boil

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Once your doctor diagnoses your condition as a cyst or a boil, and based on the severity of the symptoms, your doctor may suggest one of the following treatments for you.

Boils

  • Hot Compress – If your boil is small or growing in size, you can place a hot compress on it and allow it to burst and drain the pus out.
  • Surgery – If the boil has developed into an abscess and is bigger in size, the best option is to make a small incision and drain the pus out. Once that is done, your doctor will put a sterilized gauze to soak up the remaining pus.
  • Medications – If you see more than one boil clustered together, it is called a carbuncle. In this case, antibiotics are administered through a drip to contain the infection. After that, surgery is conducted to drain the pus from the carbuncle and the surgery site is sterilized with an antiseptic solution and allowed to heal before closing up the wound.

Cysts

  • Medications – If your cyst develops due to an infection, you can take medications such as antibiotics or corticosteroids as a way to treat cysts. These medications might help reduce the infection.
  • Surgical Excision – This is a surgical procedure that is conducted to remove skin growths such as moles, warts, cysts, etc. In this surgery, you are administered a local anesthetic around the cyst. Your doctor will make a cut, rupture the lining and drain the pus out.

Depending on the location and severity of your boil or cysts, your doctor will prescribe the appropriate treatment that can reduce their recurrence. Let’s read next about some simple tips that can help avoid boils or cysts.

Cyst Vs. Boil: Prevention Tips

They say prevention is better than treatment. While cysts cannot be prevented, here are a few simple tips that may help you prevent the development of boils.

  • Maintaining good personal hygiene and washing regularly can go a long way in stopping the growth of boils.
  • Washing your utensils and clothes with hot water and soap can help prevent the infection from spreading to people around you.

Infographic: The Differences Between Cyst And Boil

A cyst and a boil are two skin conditions caused by different factors. Knowing the difference between these two will help you determine what causes it and the kind of treatment you should opt for. Check out the infographic below to learn the basic difference between a cyst and a boil along with the different treatments suitable for each condition.

the differences between cyst and boil [infographic]

Illustration: StyleCraze Design Team

Cysts and boils may appear similar, but their causes and symptoms are different. Cysts and boils are two different conditions that, if not treated appropriately, can cause a lot of pain. If you notice symptoms like foul-smelling fluid pouring out of the protrusion, pain, or a fever, you should see your doctor. Medications or surgical excision may be required if the boil or cyst does not go away. But, before it gets that far, it is critical to practice basic hygiene to avoid getting them in the first place.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a cyst turn into a boil?

If the cyst bursts or becomes infected, it may become red, swollen, and tender to touch, like a boil.

Is a boil hard or soft?

The boil may feel hard at first, but it becomes soft after some time due to the collection of white blood cells at the center of the boil.

Does popping a cyst hurt?

Not only is popping a cyst painful and causes inflammation, but it can also lead to infection and scarring. This is why it is recommended not to pop a cyst on your own.

Can I stick a needle in a sebaceous cyst?

It is not recommended to pop a cyst with a needle. Go to a doctor. Doctors sterilize their equipment and know exactly how to drain a sebaceous cyst without causing any damage or risking an infection.

What happens if a cyst pops inside you?

You will feel pain if a cyst pops inside your body. And you run the risk of infection, blood poisoning, and inflammation in that area of the body.

Will an infected cyst go away on its own?

Infected cysts should be treated immediately. If left untreated, they can worsen and cause serious complications.

Key Takeaways

  • Cysts are small sacs filled with fluid, air, and slow-growing lumps and occur due to injury, sunburn, or trauma.
  • Bumps majorly occur due to bacterial infection – and are swollen and filled with pus.
  • Cysts are not painful, whereas bumps are painful and sore.
  • Surgical exclusion, medications, and hot compresses can help.

Sources

Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. Skin Cyst: A Pathological Dead-End With a New Twist of Morphogenetic Potentials in Organoid Cultures
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33511139/
  2. Epidermoid Cyst
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499974/
  3. Pilar Cyst
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534209/
  4. Milia
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560481/
  5. Boils and Carbuncles: Overview
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513141/
  6. Diabetes Mellitus and the Skin
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC5312172/
  7. Incidence and Recurrence of Boils and Abscesses within the First Year: a Cohort Study in UK Primary Care
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4582880/
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