The Superficial Staphylococcal Infections


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a) a photo of a small inflamed region with a white center. b) A large lesion with white and red.
Furuncles (boils) and carbuncles are infections of the skin often caused by Staphylococcus bacteria. (a) A furuncle contains pus and exhibits swelling. (b) A carbuncle is a pus-filled lesion that is typically deeper than the furuncle. It often forms from multiple furuncles. (credit a: modification of work by “Mahdouch”/Wikimedia Commons; credit b: modification of work by “Drvgaikwad”/Wikimedia Commons)

OpenStax Microbiology

S. aureus is often associated with pyoderma, skin infections that are purulent. Pus formation occurs because many strains of S. aureus produce leukocidins, which kill white blood cells. These purulent skin infections may initially manifest as folliculitis, but can lead to furuncles or deeper abscesses called carbuncles.

Folliculitis generally presents as bumps and pimples that may be itchy, red, and/or pus-filled. In some cases, folliculitis is self-limiting, but if it continues for more than a few days, worsens, or returns repeatedly, it may require medical treatment. Sweat, skin injuries, ingrown hairs, tight clothing, irritation from shaving, and skin conditions can all contribute to folliculitis. Avoidance of tight clothing and skin irritation can help to prevent infection, but topical antibiotics (and sometimes other treatments) may also help. Folliculitis can be identified by skin inspection; treatment is generally started without first culturing and identifying the causative agent.

In contrast, furuncles (boils) are deeper infections. They are most common in those individuals (especially young adults and teenagers) who play contact sports, share athletic equipment, have poor nutrition, live in close quarters, or have weakened immune systems. Good hygiene and skin care can often help to prevent furuncles from becoming more infective, and they generally resolve on their own. However, if furuncles spread, increase in number or size, or lead to systemic symptoms such as fever and chills, then medical care is needed. They may sometimes need to be drained (at which time the pathogens can be cultured) and treated with antibiotics.

When multiple boils develop into a deeper lesion, it is called a carbuncle. Because carbuncles are deeper, they are more commonly associated with systemic symptoms and a general feeling of illness. Larger, recurrent, or worsening carbuncles require medical treatment, as do those associated with signs of illness such as fever. Carbuncles generally need to be drained and treated with antibiotics. While carbuncles are relatively easy to identify visually, culturing and laboratory analysis of the wound may be recommended for some infections because antibiotic resistance is relatively common.

Proper hygiene is important to prevent these types of skin infections or to prevent the progression of existing infections.

Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS) is another superficial infection caused by S. aureus that is most commonly seen in young children, especially infants. Bacterial exotoxins first produce erythema (redness of the skin) and then severe peeling of the skin, as might occur after scalding. SSSS is diagnosed by examining characteristics of the skin (which may rub off easily), using blood tests to check for elevated white blood cell counts, culturing, and other methods. Intravenous antibiotics and fluid therapy are used as treatment.

Skin peeling off a hand.
A newborn with staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS), which results in large regions of peeling, dead skin. (credit: modification of work by D Jeyakumari, R Gopal, M Eswaran, and C MaheshKumar)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: