Learn more about the causes, symptoms and treatments of this long-term condition that causes painful lumps and tunnels under the skin.
Hidradenitis suppurativa (hi-drad-uh-NIE-tis sup-yoo-ruh-TIE-vuh) is a condition that causes small, painful lumps to form under the skin. The lumps usually develop in areas where your skin rubs together, such as the armpits, groin, buttocks and breasts. The lumps heal slowly, recur, and can lead to tunnels under the skin and scarring.
Hidradenitis suppurativa tends to start after puberty. It can persist for many years and worsen over time, with serious effects on your daily life and emotional well-being. Combined medical and surgical therapy can help manage the disease and prevent complications.
Hidradenitis suppurativa can affect one or several areas of the body. Signs and symptoms of the condition include:
- Blackheads. Blackheads appear in small pitted areas of skin, often appearing in pairs.
- Painful pea-sized lumps. The condition usually starts with a single, painful lump under the skin that persists for weeks or months. More bumps may form later, usually in areas where you have more sweat and oil glands or where the skin rubs together, such as the armpits, groin, buttocks and breasts.
- Leaking bumps or sores. Some bumps or sores get bigger, break open and drain pus with an odor.
- Tunnels. Over time, tunnels might form under the skin, connecting the lumps. These wounds heal very slowly, if at all, and drain blood and pus.
Some people with this condition experience only mild symptoms. The course of the disease is highly variable. Excess weight and being a smoker are associated with worse symptoms, but even people who are thin and don't smoke can experience severe disease.
When to see a doctor
Early diagnosis of hidradenitis suppurativa is key to getting effective treatment. See your doctor if your condition:
- Is painful
- Makes it difficult to move
- Doesn't improve in a few weeks
- Returns within weeks of treatment
- Appears in several locations
- Flares often
Hidradenitis suppurativa is not just a boil, and many people with this condition also have related conditions. People with hidradenitis suppurativa benefit from a health care team with medical and surgical dermatologists at the core. Other specialists are involved as needed.
Hidradenitis suppurativa develops when hair follicles become blocked. The exact cause for this isn't known. Experts think it could be connected to hormones, genetic predisposition, cigarette smoking or excess weight.
Hidradenitis suppurativa is not caused by an infection or being unclean, and it can't be spread to other people.
Factors that increase your chance of developing hidradenitis suppurativa include:
- Age. The risk of hidradenitis suppurativa is higher for people in their 20s and 30s.
- Sex. Females are more likely to develop hidradenitis suppurativa than are males.
- Race. Ethnicity or race might affect risk level. In the United States, the condition's prevalence is disproportionately high among Black people.
- Family history. A tendency to develop hidradenitis suppurativa can be inherited.
- Certain conditions. Hidradenitis suppurativa is more common and severe in people who are overweight. It also has an association with severe acne, arthritis, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Smoking. Smoking tobacco has been linked to hidradenitis suppurativa.
Persistent and severe hidradenitis suppurativa can cause complications, including:
- Infection. The affected area is susceptible to secondary infection, but the presence of pus is common in hidradenitis suppurativa and doesn't necessarily mean infection.
- Scars and skin changes. The wounds may heal but leave ropelike scars or pitted skin.
- Restricted movement. Sores and scar tissue can cause limited or painful movement, especially when the disease affects the armpits or thighs.
- Skin cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma has been reported with long-term hidradenitis suppurativa, particularly in people whose condition involves the perianal area.
- Swelling in the arms, legs or genitals. The most common sites for hidradenitis suppurativa also contain many lymph nodes. Scar tissue can interfere with the lymph drainage system, which can result in swelling in the arms, legs or genitals.
- Psychological effects and social isolation. The location, drainage and odor of the sores can cause embarrassment and reluctance to go out in public, leading to anxiety or depression.
The condition can be mistaken for an infection, an ingrown hair or other conditions. Many people live with undiagnosed hidradenitis suppurativa for years before receiving a correct diagnosis.
Your doctor will base a diagnosis on your signs and symptoms, skin appearance and medical history. You might be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin conditions (dermatologist), as hidradenitis suppurativa can be difficult to diagnose and requires specialized care.
No laboratory test is available to diagnose hidradenitis suppurativa. But if pus or drainage is present, your doctor might take a sample for testing in a lab.
Treatment with medications, surgery or both can help control symptoms and prevent complications of hidradenitis suppurativa. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of the treatment options and how to develop an approach tailored to you.
Expect to have regular follow-up visits with your dermatologist. Some people might need the comprehensive care provided by a multidisciplinary health care team.
Your doctor might prescribe one or more of the following types of medications:
- Antibiotics applied to the skin. Mild symptoms might be managed with a topical antibiotic in liquid or gel form. For more-widespread disease, your doctor might prescribe antibiotic pills, such as doxycycline (Monodox), clindamycin (Cleocin), rifampin (Rimactane) or both. People with severe disease might need to take antibiotics for months.
- Steroid injections. Triamcinolone (Aristospan, Kenalog-10) injected into the sores might help reduce swelling and inflammation.
- Hormonal therapy. Hormone pills, such as estrogen-containing combined oral contraceptives (Estrace, Prefest), might be effective for people with mild hidradenitis suppurativa.
- Biologics. These drugs, usually administered by injection, alter the immune system in a way that disrupts the disease cycle and improves symptoms and signs of disease within weeks. Several of these drugs are approved for the treatment of moderate to severe hidradenitis suppurativa. Two of them are the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors adalimumab (Humira) and infliximab (Remicade). Many other biologics are in clinical trials for hidradenitis suppurativa.
- Retinoids. Oral retinoids might be an option for some people with acnelike (acneiform) disease. These drugs are not recommended when you're pregnant or breastfeeding or if you intend to become pregnant.
- Pain medication. If over-the-counter pain relievers don't help, your doctor might prescribe a stronger pain medication or refer you to a pain clinic.
Combined medical and surgical approaches help manage hidradenitis suppurativa. Surgery is an important part of disease management when a tunnel and bump (abscess) are present. Which surgical approach is right for you depends on the extent and severity of your condition. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of the options, which include:
- Uncovering the tunnels. This procedure involves removing tissue (unroofing) to expose the tunnels under the skin. It's used for people with moderate or severe hidradenitis suppurativa. This solution usually doesn't have to be repeated.
- Punch debridement. This procedure, also called limited unroofing, involves removing a single inflamed bump.
- Laser therapy. A carbon dioxide laser can be used to make hidradenitis suppurativa sores go away. After this type of treatment, the sores are not likely to return. Laser hair removal can help hidradenitis suppurativa in early stages.
- Surgical removal. This approach might be an option for people with persistent or severe symptoms. It involves removing all of the affected skin. A skin graft might be needed to close the wound. Even after surgery, sores might still occur in other areas.
- Incision and drainage. Surgical drainage is no longer considered an effective option for treating hidradenitis suppurativa. The method might be considered to provide short-term pain relief, but afterward, sores usually flare again.
Mild hidradenitis suppurativa can sometimes be effectively controlled with self-care measures. Self-care is also an important complement to any medical treatment you're getting. The following suggestions might help relieve discomfort, speed healing or prevent flareups:
Follow a daily skin care routine. Gently wash your body with a nonsoap cleanser. It can sometimes be helpful to use an antiseptic wash such as chlorhexidine 4% or benzoyl peroxide wash when showering. First try it once a week, then increase usage up to once a day if your skin tolerates it well. Pat dry.
When washing, avoid using washcloths, loofahs or other such items on affected areas, as they can irritate skin. Don't squeeze pimples and sores. And avoid shaving or using depilatory creams.
- Manage your pain. Gently applying a wet, warm compress can help reduce swelling and ease pain. Ask your doctor about an appropriate pain reliever and how to care for your wounds at home.
- Try to keep or achieve a healthy weight and stay active. Not being at a healthy weight can worsen the symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa. Talk with your doctor or a dietitian to develop a plan. Try to find activities that don't irritate your skin.
- Consider altering your diet. Hidradenitis symptoms might be worsened by diets that include dairy, red meat and foods with a high glycemic index. If your diet includes these foods, talk with a dietitian about the benefits of eliminating them.
- Quit smoking. If you smoke, try to quit. Smoking cessation has the potential to ease the symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa.
Hidradenitis suppurativa can be a challenge to your emotional health and well-being. Painful sores might affect your sleep, ability to move or sex life. Or the sores might drain pus with an odor, which might make you feel anxious, embarrassed, angry, self-conscious or depressed. The ongoing, persistent nature of the disease and its treatment challenges only add to the burden.
Try to find support among your family and friends. The concern and understanding of other people with hidradenitis suppurativa also might be comforting. Don't hesitate to ask for help with your mental health and coping strategies. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health professional or provide the contact information of a support group.
You'll likely first see your primary care doctor. You might then be referred to a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating skin diseases (dermatologist). Depending on the severity of your condition, your care might also involve specialists in colorectal surgery, plastic surgery or digestive diseases (gastroenterology).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
Make a list of the following:
- Symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment
- All medications, vitamins and supplements you take, including doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
For hidradenitis suppurativa, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- Are there other possible causes?
- Do I need any tests?
- How long will my condition last?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend for me?
- What side effects can I expect from treatment?
- Is this condition related to another medical disorder?
- Do you have any brochures or other printed materials that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- What did the skin lumps look like when they started?
- Do they come back in the same spots?
- Are your symptoms painful?
- Have your parents or siblings ever had this problem?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to worsen your symptoms?
- Do you smoke or use tobacco products?
August 6th, 2021