Interventions for bacterial folliculitis and boils (furuncles and carbuncles)

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Feb 26;2(2):CD013099. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013099.pub2.


Background: Bacterial folliculitis and boils are globally prevalent bacterial infections involving inflammation of the hair follicle and the perifollicular tissue. Some folliculitis may resolve spontaneously, but others may progress to boils without treatment. Boils, also known as furuncles, involve adjacent tissue and may progress to cellulitis or lymphadenitis. A systematic review of the best evidence on the available treatments was needed.

Objectives: To assess the effects of interventions (such as topical antibiotics, topical antiseptic agents, systemic antibiotics, phototherapy, and incision and drainage) for people with bacterial folliculitis and boils.

Search methods: We searched the following databases up to June 2020: the Cochrane Skin Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, and Embase. We also searched five trials registers up to June 2020. We checked the reference lists of included studies and relevant reviews for further relevant trials. SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that assessed systemic antibiotics; topical antibiotics; topical antiseptics, such as topical benzoyl peroxide; phototherapy; and surgical interventions in participants with bacterial folliculitis or boils. Eligible comparators were active intervention, placebo, or no treatment.

Data collection and analysis: We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane. Our primary outcomes were 'clinical cure' and 'severe adverse events leading to withdrawal of treatment'; secondary outcomes were 'quality of life', 'recurrence of folliculitis or boil following completion of treatment', and 'minor adverse events not leading to withdrawal of treatment'. We used GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence.

Main results: We included 18 RCTs (1300 participants). The studies included more males (332) than females (221), although not all studies reported these data. Seventeen trials were conducted in hospitals, and one was conducted in clinics. The participants included both children and adults (0 to 99 years). The studies did not describe severity in detail; of the 232 participants with folliculitis, 36% were chronic. At least 61% of participants had furuncles or boils, of which at least 47% were incised. Duration of oral and topical treatments ranged from 3 days to 6 weeks, with duration of follow-up ranging from 3 days to 6 months. The study sites included Asia, Europe, and America. Only three trials reported funding, with two funded by industry. Ten studies were at high risk of 'performance bias', five at high risk of 'reporting bias', and three at high risk of 'detection bias'. We did not identify any RCTs comparing topical antibiotics against topical antiseptics, topical antibiotics against systemic antibiotics, or phototherapy against sham light. Eleven trials compared different oral antibiotics. We are uncertain as to whether cefadroxil compared to flucloxacillin (17/21 versus 18/20, risk ratio (RR) 0.90, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.70 to 1.16; 41 participants; 1 study; 10 days of treatment) or azithromycin compared to cefaclor (8/15 versus 10/16, RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.40; 31 participants; 2 studies; 7 days of treatment) differed in clinical cure (both very low-certainty evidence). There may be little to no difference in clinical cure rate between cefdinir and cefalexin after 17 to 24 days (25/32 versus 32/42, RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.73 to 1.38; 74 participants; 1 study; low-certainty evidence), and there probably is little to no difference in clinical cure rate between cefditoren pivoxil and cefaclor after 7 days (24/46 versus 21/47, RR 1.17, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.78; 93 participants; 1 study; moderate-certainty evidence). For risk of severe adverse events leading to treatment withdrawal, there may be little to no difference between cefdinir versus cefalexin after 17 to 24 days (1/191 versus 1/200, RR 1.05, 95% CI 0.07 to 16.62; 391 participants; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). There may be an increased risk with cefadroxil compared with flucloxacillin after 10 days (6/327 versus 2/324, RR 2.97, 95% CI 0.60 to 14.62; 651 participants; 1 study; low-certainty evidence) and cefditoren pivoxil compared with cefaclor after 7 days (2/77 versus 0/73, RR 4.74, 95% CI 0.23 to 97.17; 150 participants; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). However, for these three comparisons the 95% CI is very wide and includes the possibility of both increased and reduced risk of events. We are uncertain whether azithromycin affects the risk of severe adverse events leading to withdrawal of treatment compared to cefaclor (274 participants; 2 studies; very low-certainty evidence) as no events occurred in either group after seven days. For risk of minor adverse events, there is probably little to no difference between the following comparisons: cefadroxil versus flucloxacillin after 10 days (91/327 versus 116/324, RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.62 to 0.98; 651 participants; 1 study; moderate-certainty evidence) or cefditoren pivoxil versus cefaclor after 7 days (8/77 versus 5/73, RR 1.52, 95% CI 0.52 to 4.42; 150 participants; 1 study; moderate-certainty evidence). We are uncertain of the effect of azithromycin versus cefaclor after seven days due to very low-certainty evidence (7/148 versus 4/126, RR 1.26, 95% CI 0.38 to 4.17; 274 participants; 2 studies). The study comparing cefdinir versus cefalexin did not report data for total minor adverse events, but both groups experienced diarrhoea, nausea, and vaginal mycosis during 17 to 24 days of treatment. Additional adverse events reported in the other included studies were vomiting, rashes, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach ache, with some events leading to study withdrawal. Three included studies assessed recurrence following completion of treatment, none of which evaluated our key comparisons, and no studies assessed quality of life.

Authors' conclusions: We found no RCTs regarding the efficacy and safety of topical antibiotics versus antiseptics, topical versus systemic antibiotics, or phototherapy versus sham light for treating bacterial folliculitis or boils. Comparative trials have not identified important differences in efficacy or safety outcomes between different oral antibiotics for treating bacterial folliculitis or boils. Most of the included studies assessed participants with skin and soft tissue infection which included many disease types, whilst others focused specifically on folliculitis or boils. Antibiotic sensitivity data for causative organisms were often not reported. Future trials should incorporate culture and sensitivity information and consider comparing topical antibiotic with antiseptic, and topical versus systemic antibiotics or phototherapy.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local / therapeutic use
  • Bias
  • Carbuncle / drug therapy
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Furunculosis / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Young Adult


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local