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What is folliculitis?

Folliculitis is inflammation or infection that can affect one or more hair follicles. Your hair follicles are the small cavities that surround the roots of your hair.

Folliculitis can occur on your skin wherever hair grows, including your scalp. It’s most likely to occur on your thighs, buttocks, neck, and armpits — places where friction is common. It usually appears as small bumps. It may look like acne or a rash. It can be isolated to one hair follicle or affect many. It can be acute or chronic. Acute cases occur for a short time, while chronic cases are ongoing.

Folliculitis is relatively common. People who are obese are more likely to experience it.

What are the symptoms of folliculitis?

Folliculitis causes small crusty bumps to form on your skin. They can be red, white, or yellow in color. They may be accompanied by:

  • soreness
  • itching
  • swelling
  • pus

What causes folliculitis?

Folliculitis is usually caused by staph bacteria or fungi. You can contract staph bacteria or fungi through body contact with someone who has an infection. You can also contract them through contact with contaminated personal items, such as towels, soap, or clothing used by someone with an infection. You can pick up bacteria or fungi at unclean pools or spas as well.

Other risk factors may increase your chances of developing folliculitis, including:

  • wearing tight clothing that irritates your skin
  • getting skin injuries, such as those caused by shaving
  • not showering after excessive sweating
  • having a weakened immune system

How is folliculitis diagnosed?

To diagnose folliculitis, your doctor will examine the inflamed or irritated areas of your skin. Be sure to tell your doctor:

  • how long you’ve had bumps on your skin
  • what other symptoms you’ve been experiencing
  • whether you have a history of folliculitis

Your doctor may be able to diagnose folliculitis base on appearance alone. To identify the cause, they may remove one of the bumps for testing.

How is folliculitis treated?

Folliculitis is usually minor and goes away on its own without treatment. If you have skin irritation that’s accompanied by a fever, spreading rash, or pus-filled and smelly bumps, seek medical help.

To treat acute folliculitis that’s severe or slow to heal, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications. For example, they may recommend:

  • oral or topical antibiotics or antifungal medications to treat the cause of your infection
  • NSAIDs or antihistamines to relieve pain or itching

Chronic folliculitis can be more difficult to treat. Antibiotics and other medications may not clear up chronic cases. If other treatment options fail, your doctor may recommend laser hair removal.

During treatment, you should refrain from removing hair by plucking, waxing, or shaving. Allowing your hair to grow may help your follicles to heal. For chronic folliculitis, your doctor may advise you to allow your hair to grow for up to three months.

What is the outlook for folliculitis?

Most cases of folliculitis go away without treatment. It rarely causes more severe problems. In a small number of cases, it can cause:

  • boils to form under your skin
  • permanent scarring or dark patches to develop on your skin
  • damage to your hair follicle, resulting in permanent hair loss

If you’ve had folliculitis in the past, you’re more likely to have it again in the future.

How is folliculitis prevented?

To help prevent folliculitis:

  • Shave only in the direction that hair grows, or use an electric razor.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing, especially rough fabrics such as denim.
  • Use lotions that don’t clog your pores to keep your skin moisturized.
  • Avoid sharing personal care products, such as razors and towels.
  • Shower after heavy sweating.

To help prevent complications and lessen the severity of folliculitis when you have it:

  • Avoid friction caused by shaving or rubbing the infected area.
  • Use a warm compress to calm irritation and reduce pain.
  • Wash your towels and washcloths every day until all of your symptoms have subsided.

Ask your doctor for more tips on preventing folliculitis. If you experience it regularly, they may refer you to a dermatologist to help you learn how to avoid and manage the condition.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristen Fischer
Medically reviewed on: Jul 27, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, School of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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