Q. Every so often I get a red bump or two on my skin. These seem to occur around areas with hair, and I've heard these referred to as hair bumps. My doctor calls them folliculitis, and has given me some antibiotic cream to put on them. I've tried to find information about folliculitis in the library, but haven't been able to so far.
My husband seems to have a similar problem, mostly involving the skin around his beard area. Some of the hairs apparently become ingrown, and turn into red bumps with pus in them, sort of like large pimples. What can we do to treat this problem?
A. Folliculitis is inflammation (redness, swelling and tenderness) in the small cavity around a hair that is called a hair follicle. Most of the time the inflammation is due to infection. But it can also be caused by harsh chemicals or other irritants on your skin.
Although folliculitis can occur almost anywhere on your body, it often appears in covered areas, such as the groin, upper thighs and, in men, the chest.
With infection, bacteria multiply in the follicle, which then turns into a red pimple. Most of the time, this common condition heals by itself. Sometimes, you may need to take antibiotic pills to keep the infection from spreading and help it heal faster. You can also apply an antibiotic cream, such as Bactroban (available by prescription) or bacitracin (available over-the-counter).
Your husband's condition is similar, but more difficult to treat. Instead of infection, the underlying problem is that the hairs in the beard area turn back into the skin. Doctors call this condition pseudofolliculitis barbae, meaning a condition resembling folliculitis that affects the beard area. It's more common in African American men and those who have tightly curled hair. Instead of "hair bumps," this condition is known as "razor bumps."
After shaving, as the hair starts growing back, it becomes ingrown. This leads to inflammation, which is sometimes followed by infection. Most of the time, the problem will go away if you stop shaving and allow your beard to grow.
For treatment, you may need to have the tips of any ingrown hairs pulled back out of the skin. You may also need antibiotics if the infection is severe. If possible, stop shaving for a while until things clear up. But keep in mind that this problem is prone to recur.
To help prevent it, you can try using a highly lubricating shaving gel and a double edge razor. Avoid shaving too closely. Use a minimal number of strokes, and don't shave against the grain. There are some electric shavers that are specially designed for this problem, though they don't work for everyone. You can also try applications of glycolic acid lotion (Aqua-Glycolic Lotion) to control this condition.
If this problem is severe or continues to recur, you might consider using depilatories to dissolve the hairs. Two types are those that contain barium sulfide (such as Magic Shaving Powder) and those that contain thioglycollate (Nair, Neet and Nudit). The barium sulfide products are more irritating and have more of an odor, but they're also more effective at dissolving hair. Be careful when using either of these irritating products on skin that's already inflamed.
Jay Siwek, chairman of the department of family medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, practices at the Fort Lincoln Family Medicine Center and Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington.
Consultation is a health education column and is not a substitute for medical advice from your physician. Send questions to Consultation, Health Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. Questions cannot be answered personally.