The bumps were red and itchy, speckled across both shins, and I noticed them one summer day while pulling on shorts to take my dogs for a walk. Though I don’t typically find ingrown hairs on my legs, I’m prone to them around my bikini line and these bumps looked similar. Plus, each bump contained a hair follicle, so my self-diagnosis of ingrowns—version legs-point-oh—seemed obvious. I set about plucking the hairs and exfoliating with a sugar scrub and tried not to think too much about the spots, even though I wanted to wear flirty dresses and skirts and they were totally ruining my effortless-summer-goddess vibe.
After a couple of weeks, my legs didn’t look any better. In fact, the ingrowns seemed to be spreading. I was a little skeptical (ingrown hairs aren’t contagious, are they?), but the fact that bumps only existed around the hair follicles made me pretty sure that I had correctly assessed my situation. Plus, I wanted to avoid a trip to the doctor if at all possible. (I’m there a lot thanks to a few chronic health conditions and worry that my GP thinks I’m a hypochondriac.) By this point, I had received a few questions about the “bites” all over my legs.
Then one morning I woke up and a cluster of the bumps had developed whiteheads and were surrounded by a hot, red patch of skin that was tender to the touch. The pain seemed to be radiating into my knee and I had the sudden fear that I had an infection in my blood and was going to lose my leg. (See: My GP irrationally thinks I’m a hypochondriac.) I hurried to a walk-in clinic and the doctor took one look at my legs and told me I had folliculitis.
“Are you sure they’re not just ingrowns?” I asked.
“You have an infection,” he responded. (Don’t miss these 10 things doctors secretly wish they could tell you.)
He prescribed oral and topical antibiotics and sent me on my way, but the experience made me rethink my lifestyle because a) the bumps ruined my summer outfits for weeks, b) no one likes an infection and c) I’m hella worried about antibiotic resistance.
As soon as I got home, I googled folliculitis. According to Mayo Clinic, it’s a bacterial or fungal infection of the hair follicles that looks like small clusters of red bumps or white-headed pimples. They can cause an itchy, burning sensation, tender skin or even a large swollen bump or mass. If your symptoms last for more than a few days, you may require antibiotics. Check, check, all the checks.
But how did it happen to me? It turns out that folliculitis is typically caused by poor shaving habits, a yeast infection, exposure to a hot tub or pool without proper chlorine and pH regulation or—and here’s the one that caught my attention—regularly wearing clothes that trap heat and sweat, especially anything tight. Bingo. Just a few months before, I had started working out consistently and found myself sweating more than I ever had in my whole life. And because I wanted to remove any barriers to getting my lazy ass to the gym, I often wore my gym clothes after my workout and found myself sitting around in sweaty leggings while writing at coffee shops or running errands. Yes, it’s gross, but it’s what I did.
Well, not anymore. Now, I bring a change of clothes to the gym because I refuse to get folliculitis again. Because gross. Because no one wants itchy, bumpy legs that make people ask if you’ve been bitten by a hoard of swarming flies.
Next, check out 20 things your skin can reveal about your overall health.