Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) is a common and debilitating inflammatory disorder of the pilosebaceous unit that presents with recurrent scarring inflammatory nodules and sinus tracts in the intertriginous folds of the body. It is a complex condition that requires multimodal management to address the medical, surgical, and psychosocial needs of affected patients. However, it can be difficult to coordinate all that goes into HS management beyond the standard therapeutic ladder of topical and oral antimicrobials, intralesional corticosteroids, biologics, and surgery. In this article, I will outline 5 important aspects of HS treatment that often are overlooked.
Talk About Pathophysiology
Patients with HS often have limited understanding of their condition. One common misperception is that HS is an infectious disease and that disease activity is associated with poor hygiene.1 Dispelling this myth may help patients avoid unnecessary hygiene practices, decrease perceived stigma, and enhance your therapeutic alliance.
The current model of HS pathophysiology implicates an aberrant inflammatory response to the cutaneous bacterial microbiome, which leads to follicular occlusion and then rupture of debris and bacteria into the surrounding dermis. Immune cells and inflammatory mediators such as nuclear factor κB and tumor necrosis factor α respond to the disruption. Chronic lesions develop due to tissue repair with scarring and re-epithelialization.2,3 Although most patients probably are not interested in the esoteric details, I typically make a point of explaining to patients that HS is a chronic inflammatory disease and provide reassurance that it is not a sign of poor hygiene.
Counsel on Smoking Cessation
Most HS patients use tobacco. As many as 75% of HS patients are active smokers and another 10% to 15% are former smokers. Although there is mixed evidence that disease activity correlates with smoking status, the Hidradenitis Suppurativa Foundation in the United States and Canada concluded in the 2019 North American Clinical Management Guidelines for Hidradenitis Suppurativa that due to the overall health risks of smoking, we should recommend cessation to our patients.4
Laser Hair Removal Works
Don’t forget about laser hair removal! Evidence from randomized controlled trials supports the use of the Nd:YAG laser in the treatment of HS. Treat the entire affected anatomic area and use stacked double pulses on active nodules (typical settings: 10-mm spot size; 10-millisecond pulse duration and 35–50 J/cm2 in Fitzpatrick skin types I–III; 20-millisecond pulse duration and 25–40 J/cm2 in Fitzpatrick skin types IV–VI).4 Especially if it is covered by your patient’s insurance, Nd:YAG is a great adjunctive treatment to consider. The guidelines also recommend long-pulsed alexandrite and diode lasers as well as intense pulsed light, all of which result in follicular destruction, though these treatments have less supporting evidence.4
Have a Plan for Flares
Intralesional injection of triamcinolone is a mainstay of HS treatment and provides patients with rapid relief of symptoms during a flare.5 One case series found that there was a notable decrease in pain, size, and drainage after just 1 day of treatment with intralesional triamcinolone 10 mg/mL (0.2–2.0 mL).6
Intralesional steroid injection is a great tool for quieting an active disease flare while simultaneously instating ongoing treatment for preventive management. However, even when disease control is optimized, patients may still experience intermittent flares of disease. For some patients, it may be appropriate to have a plan in place for a return to clinic during the beginning of a flare to obtain intralesional steroids. The ability to come in on short notice may help avoid visits to the emergency department and urgent care where your patients may receive treatments such as short courses of antibiotics or incision and drainage that may deviate from your overall treatment plan.
Consider Childbearing Status
Don’t forget to consider childbearing plans and childbearing potential when treating female patients with HS. Pregnancy is a frequent consideration in HS patients, as HS affects 3 to 4 times more women than men and typically presents after puberty (second or third decades of life). Many of the medications in the HS armamentarium are contraindicated in pregnancy including tetracyclines, retinoids, and hormonal agents. Surgery should be avoided in pregnant patients whenever possible, particularly in the first trimester. Relatively safe options include topical antibiotics such as clindamycin and metronidazole, as well as tumor necrosis factor α inhibitors, which are classified as category B in pregnancy.5
Before making treatment decisions in pregnant and breastfeeding patients, consult the US Food and Drug Administration recommendations. Perng et al7 reviewed current management strategies for HS in pregnant and breastfeeding women, and their review article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology is an excellent resource.
Comprehensive management of HS may include a combination of medication and procedures, lifestyle modification, management of comorbidities, and social support. Formulating a good treatment plan may be a challenge but can drastically improve your patient’s quality of life.