What's the Difference Between a Pimple and a Boil?

A large whitehead on your skin may not be an acne pimple. You may have a boil.

Large acne pimples and boils can look very similar. They are both swollen, painful lumps with white heads. They are both filled with thick, yellowish fluid.

Acne pimples and boils are not the same, though. They have different causes and treatments. This means you need to know which one you have before you can treat it. 

This article describes some of the differences between pimples and boils, and how they should be treated.

how to treat a boil
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Underlying Causes

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Boil
Boil.

 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Boils and pimples have different causes.

What Is a Boil?

Boils are also called furuncles or abscesses. They are infected hair follicles.

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria are the most common cause of boils. Other bacteria and fungus can also cause boils, though.

A boil looks like a large acne pimple. It starts as a painful, firm, red lump under the skin. Over the course of several days, it grows larger, softens, and develops a white, pus-filled head.

At first it can be hard to tell the difference between a boil and a pimple. A pimple can also start out as a firm, red, painful lump.

What Is a Pimple?

A pimple is not caused by an infection. It's caused by a blocked pore. The pore becomes blocked by a plug of oil and dead skin cells.   

The oil and dead skin cells irritate the pore, causing redness and swelling. The acne-causing bacteria Propionibacterium acnes also play a role.

1:27

Click Play to Learn How to Handle Large Pimples

This video has been medically reviewed by Casey Gallagher, MD.

Location

Location is a clue as to whether a blemish is a pimple or a boil.

Locations for Pimples

If the large blemish is on your face, it's probably an acne pimple. Pimples are common on the face, upper back, shoulders, and chest area. 

Severe or cystic acne can cause very large, tender, inflamed blemishes. These cyst-like blemishes are in deeper structures of the skin than typical pimples. They can look similar to boils.

You may sometimes get large, lone pimples even if you don't have regular breakouts. These usually go away within a week or so.

Locations for Boils

A large lump that appears in these places is probably a boil:

  • Groin
  • Thigh
  • Breast
  • Armpit
  • Foot

You don't usually get acne in these places. This means if you have a bump there it's unlikely to be a pimple. Boils, though, are very common in these areas.

Still, boils are also common in the face and neck area, just like acne. So location alone isn't always enough to determine if it's a boil or pimple.

Recap

You don't usually get acne in the groin or thigh area, breast, armpit, or foot. If you have a blemish in one of these places, it's likely to be a boil.

Size

The size of the blemish is also a clue. If it's dime-sized or smaller, it is more likely to be a pimple. If it's larger than a nickel, it's probably a boil.

Size of Boils

One of the key differences between boils and pimples is size. The size of boils vary. They can be the size of a cherry and up to the size of a walnut, sometimes even larger. A blemish that size is most likely a boil.

Size of Pimples

Some pimples can grow very large. Even the largest pimple, though, won't get much larger than a dime.  

Most of the "giant pimple-popping" videos on YouTube are not pimples but boils. Note that boils should never be popped at home.

How To Treat a Big Pimple

An untreated pimple should heal within seven to 14 days. The lump underneath the skin can take longer to go away.

Sometimes these lumps can last a few months. This depends on how deep and inflamed the pimple was.

Ice can help relieve some of the swelling and pain. Wrap an ice cube in a soft cloth and hold it over the pimple for a couple of minutes. Do this two to three times a day. Icing won't help the pimple heal faster, but it can help it feel better.

An over-the-counter (OTC) spot treatment containing benzoyl peroxide or Differin (adapalene) can also help.

Both these products can relieve inflammation and help the blemish heal more quickly. Note, though, that topical medications don't work as well on very deep blemishes.

A regular acne treatment can help prevent acne. The goal is to stop large pimples from forming.

How to Treat a Boil

Boils can often be treated at home. They typically take several days, sometimes more, to come to a head and drain. Once they drain, the healing process can start.

You can help your boil to come to a head. Cover it with a warm, damp compress several times a day.

Make sure you wash your hands well before and after touching your boil. Don't ever try to lance or pop it.

Call a doctor if:

  • If you aren't getting results with home care
  • Your boil is getting worse
  • Your boil is very painful
  • You're feeling unwell

You should also call a doctor if your boil is on your face or you have multiple or recurring boils.

Your doctor can lance and drain your boil. Prescribed medication can help clear the infection.

Recap

Pimples can be treated with ice and a topical ointment like benzyol peroxide. Covering a boil with a warm, damp compress can help it come to a head and drain. Never try to lance or pop a boil at home. 

Summary

Boils and large pimples look very similar. They have different causes and treatments, though. Boils are infected hair follicles. Pimples are blocked pores.

You may be able to tell the difference based on location. Pimples usually appear on the face, back, shoulders, and chest. Blemishes that appear elsewhere may be boils.

Pimples are rarely larger than a dime. Boils may be much larger than that. 

You can treat a pimple with ice and a spot treatment like benzoyl peroxide. A boil can be treated with a warm, damp compress to help it come to a head and drain.

See a doctor if your boil doesn't get any better or you are in pain or feel unwell.

A Word From Verywell

They can look very similar, but boils and pimples are completely different skin problems. They're treated differently too. That's why it's important to know what you have before starting home care.

If you still aren't sure what's causing your inflamed whitehead, call your doctor. A simple exam will lead to the right diagnosis and treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you treat a big pimple under the skin?

    A big pimple under the skin may be nodular acne. You can relieve pain by applying a wrapped ice pack to the acne. However, proper treatment often requires a prescription from a healthcare provider since over-the-counter drugs are usually not strong enough, Nodular acne is a type of acne that creates large pimples which develop in deeper layers of skin.

  • Can you get a boil on your ear?

    Yes, you can get a boil on your ear. Any area of the body can have them, although boils often appear on the face, neck, groin, thigh, foot, armpit, or breast. To treat the boil, start by pressing a warm, damp compress against it multiple times every day. If the boil doesn't see improvement after several days or gets worse, you may need to contact your healthcare provider so they can drain the boil.

  • What is the difference between a zit and a pimple?

    There is no difference between a zit and a pimple. They are both used as words to describe acne, which everyone will experience at least once in their lifetime. Topical treatments in the form of a cream or gel can be effective in treating persistent acne, but if over-the-counter solutions aren't effective, a prescription medication can help.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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