5 Hidradenitis Suppurativa Symptoms to Know If Your Skin Is Acting Up

I had just returned home from the best summer of my life. It was 2012, and I’d spent the last three months interning at Southwest Airlines in Dallas, spending most of the summer traveling on standby with no preplanned destinations. But when I returned home ready to start my senior year of college, the lymph nodes near my armpits were swollen and painful. My family doctor and I agreed that it was likely fatigue from an eventful three months. 

I took it easy my fall quarter at school and tried not to push myself too hard, but the swelling and pain persisted. Sometimes the swelling would go down, only to return a few days later. In the winter of 2013, I moved to northern Wisconsin for an internship as an on-air reporter. Carrying heavy camera equipment around all day and working odd hours took a toll on my body. My right armpit became even more inflamed and turned a purplish color. I went to the emergency room in immense pain, and the doctors ran blood tests to ensure it wasn’t something serious like cancer. The tests were all normal. 

I was in and out of the E.R. for the next month as abscesses began to form in my underarms. The doctors would lance the boils, providing much-needed relief, but the wounds didn’t heal. Instead, they just continued to leak fluid. This drainage would be a near constant for the next seven years. 

I wound up in urgent care at the end of February 2014. At this point, I couldn’t carry the heavy camera equipment or even last a full day at work. At urgent care, a doctor whom I will never forget took a look at my armpit and finally diagnosed me with hidradenitis suppurativa. I cried in relief and asked what I needed to do to cure it. He then informed me that there was no cure and handed me a brochure before recommending that I look for a dermatologist. The fight for treatment began. 

As I would come to learn, hidradenitis suppurativa is a painful, chronic skin condition that happens when hair follicles become obstructed for some reason, the Mayo Clinic explains. Those reasons are yet to be fully discovered; experts aren’t sure of the root cause behind the condition, though they do have theories. Hidradenitis suppurativa doesn’t happen because of an infection or hygiene-related issues, which are common misconceptions with this kind of condition. Instead, it could have hormonal, genetic, or immune-related causes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

No matter the cause, I know very well that the symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa can be excruciating and debilitating. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa include:

  1. Breakouts that look similar to pimples or boils. These breakouts typically happen in areas where your skin folds, like the groin, underarms, buttocks, and beneath the breasts. The bumps may go away and come back, or they can stay put.
  2. Bumps that rupture and release smelly liquid. “The skin can break open and ooze,” Andrea L. Niemann, M.D., clinical assistant professor at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tells SELF.
  3. Scarring, which can thicken over time.
  4. “Tunnels” that form under the skin. “[The abscesses] tend to be quite tender. Over time, you can get more of them and get linking of these inflammatory areas and scarring,” Dr. Niemann says.
  5. Infection.

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