Military Dermatology

Hidradenitis Suppurativa in the Military

In Partnership With the Association of Military Dermatologists

Author and Disclosure Information

Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) is a chronic inflammatory skin disease affecting the apocrine glands that is painful and often debilitating. Clinical manifestations include painful subcutaneous nodules that may lead to purulent secretions, abscesses, and fistula formation. The disease can be disfiguring and can worsen with friction and smoking. Treatment of HS in military servicemembers (SMs) often requires physical duty restrictions, which can result in removal from active service. We report the case of an active-duty marine with a flare of groin HS.

Practice Points

  • Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) can be more difficult to treat in physically active military servicemembers (SMs).
  • Patient education and primary care physician awareness of HS is critical to initial diagnosis and long-term management.
  • Primary care physician knowledge of HS as well as an understanding of the capabilities at local military medical facilities is important for optimal treatment of HS in military SMs.



Case Report

A 19-year-old female marine with a 10-year history of hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) presented with hyperpigmented nodules in the inguinal folds and a recurrent cyst in the right groin area of 2 to 3 weeks’ duration. She denied axillary or inframammary involvement. She underwent several incision and drainage procedures 1 year prior to her enlistment in the US Marine Corps at 18 years of age. She previously had been treated by dermatology with doxycycline 100-mg tablets twice daily, benzoyl peroxide wash 5% applied to affected areas and rinsed daily, and clindamycin solution 1% with minimal improvement. She denied smoking or alcohol intake and said she typically wore a loose-fitting uniform to work. As a marine, she was expected to participate in daily physical training and exercises with her military unit, during which she wore a standardized physical training uniform, including nylon shorts and a cotton T-shirt. She requested light duty—military duty status with physical limitations or restrictions—to avoid physical training that would cause further friction and irritation to the inguinal region.

Physical examination demonstrated a woman with Fitzpatrick skin type III and normal body mass index. There were hyperpigmented nodules and scarring in the inguinal folds, most consistent with Hurley stage 2. A single, 0.5-cm, draining lesion was visualized. No hyperhidrosis was noted. The patient was placed on light duty for 7 days, with physical training only at her own pace and discretion. Moreover, she was restricted from field training, rifle range training, and other situations where she may excessively sweat or not be able to adequately maintain personal hygiene. She was encouraged to continue clindamycin solution 1% to the affected area twice daily and was prescribed chlorhexidine solution 4% to use when washing affected areas in the shower. The patient also was referred to the dermatology department at the Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton (Oceanside, California), where she was treated with laser hair removal in the inguinal region, thus avoiding waxing and further aggravation of HS flares. Due to the combination of topical therapies along with laser hair removal and duty restrictions, the patient had a dramatic decrease in development of severe nodular lesions.


Historically, the incidence of HS is estimated at 0.5% to 4% of the general population with female predominance.1 Predisposing factors include obesity, smoking, genetic predisposition to acne, apocrine duct obstruction, and secondary bacterial infection.2 During acute flares, patients generally present with tender subcutaneous nodules that drain malodorous purulent material.3,4 Acute flares are unpredictable, and patients deal with chronic, recurrent, draining wounds, leading to a poor quality of life with resulting physical, psychological, financial, social, and emotional distress.3-5 The negative impact of HS on a patient’s quality of life has been reported to be greater than other dermatologic conditions.6 Lesions can be particularly painful and can cause disfiguration to the surface of the skin.7 Lesion severity is described using the Hurley staging system. Patient quality of life is directly correlated with disease severity and Hurley stage. In stage 1, abscesses develop, but no sinus tracts or cicatrization is present. In stage 2, recurrent abscesses will form tracts and cicatrization. In stage 3, the abscesses become diffuse or near diffuse, with multiple interconnected tracts and abscesses across the entire area of the body.8,9

Severe or refractory HS within the physically active military population may require consideration of light or limited duty or even separation from service. Similarly, severe HS may pose challenges with other physically demanding occupations, such as the police force and firefighters.

Prevention Focus
Prevention of flares is key for patients with HS; secondary prevention aims to reduce impact of the disease or injury that has already occurred,10,11 which includes prevention of the infundibulofolliculitis from becoming a deep folliculitis, nodule, or fistula, as well as Hurley stage progression. Prompt diagnosis with appropriate treatment can decrease the severity of lesions, pain, and scarring. Globally, HS patients continue to experience considerable diagnostic delays of 8 to 12 years after onset of initial symptoms.11,12 Earlier accurate diagnosis and initiation of treatment from the primary care provider or general medical officer is imperative. Initial accurate management may help keep symptoms from progressing to more severe painful lesions. Similarly, patients should be educated on how to prevent HS flares. Patients should avoid known triggers, including smoking, obesity, sweating, mechanical irritation, stress, and poor hygiene.11

Shaving for hair reduction creates ingrown hair shafts, which may lead to folliculitis in mechanically stressed areas in skin folds, thus initiating the inflammatory cascade of HS.11,13 Therefore, shaving along with any other mechanical stress should be avoided in patients with HS. Laser hair removal has been shown to be quite helpful in both the prevention and treatment of HS. In one study, 22 patients with Hurley stage 2 to 3 disease were treated with an Nd:YAG laser once monthly. Results demonstrated a 65% decrease in disease severity after 3 monthly treatments.11 Similarly, other lasers have been used with success in several small case series; an 800-nm diode laser, intense pulsed light therapy, and a ruby laser have each demonstrated efficacy.14 Given these results, hair removal should be recommended to patients with HS. Military servicemembers (SMs) with certain conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, pseudofolliculitis barbae, and HS, are eligible for laser hair removal when available at local military treatment facilities. Primary care providers for military SMs must have a working understanding of the disease process of HS and awareness of what resources are available for treatment, which allows for more streamlined care and improved outcomes.


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