An infected ingrown hair — also known as folliculitis — typically looks like a bump, a hard lump, or a cyst under the skin. It may contain pus. You can usually treat them at home.

An infected ingrown hair happens when a hair is blocked from leaving the skin or newly emerged hair curls back into the skin, and the follicle becomes infected.

Home remedies can often treat ingrown hairs, even if the affected area becomes infected. Infections can occur if a person does not treat the hair or if they have a weakened immune system.

Keep reading to learn how to recognize an infected ingrown hair, as well as tips for treating and preventing them.

Typically, new hair grows straight out of the follicles in the skin. As the hair matures, it exits the skin’s surface and continues to grow. But sometimes, the hair grows crooked or curls back under before it has a chance to exit the skin. This is called an ingrown hair.

Ingrown hairs can also happen when dead skin cells on the skin’s surface clog a hair follicle and block the hair from emerging.

If bacteria, fungi, or other pathogens enter the skin, an infection can develop, known as folliculitis.

Ingrown hairs are most common in areas of hair removal, such as the face, legs, armpits, and pubic region. They also occur more often in men who shave their beards. Shaving and waxing creates sharper hairs that tend to get trapped in the skin.

You may have a higher risk for ingrown hairs and related infections if your hair is naturally coarse or curly. These hair types are more likely to curl back into the skin when growing out after hair removal.

The first sign of an infected ingrown hair is often a bump. As the infection progresses, you may see pus, and the bump may grow larger.

The area around the infected ingrown hair may also:

  • be a different color to the surrounding skin
  • irritate
  • swell
  • itch
  • feel warm to the touch

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If your infection is mild or infrequent, you may be able to use home remedies. If infections recur or are severe, you may need medical treatment.

Home remedies

These include:

  • washing and lightly scrubbing the area to encourage the hair to loosen from the follicle and exit the skin
  • applying products containing tea tree oil to alleviate the infection and prevent it from getting worse
  • using oatmeal-based lotions to soothe irritated skin
  • using over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to relieve itching

If your infection doesn’t improve with home treatment, see your doctor.

Medical treatment

A doctor will usually assess an ingrown hair infection by looking at the symptoms and asking about your medical history.

If you often develop infected ingrown hairs, the doctor may take a skin sample for testing. This can help identify an underlying condition.

For a severe infection, they can prescribe medication to treat it and coax the hair out. For example, prescription steroid creams can reduce inflammation, and prescription-strength antibiotic creams can treat the infection.

A doctor may prescribe oral steroids, antibiotics, or other medications if the infection has a risk of becoming severe or spreading to the blood and internal organs.

Some prescription medications can help prevent ingrown hairs. Retinoid creams are effective in removing dead skin cells that may contribute to ingrown hairs. They can also help reduce scars from former infections.

Staphylococcus (staph) infections can occur with an ingrown hair. Staph is typically present in your skin flora, but it can’t cause an infection unless it enters a break in the skin.

Not every wound associated with an ingrown hair will turn into a staph infection. It’s more likely to happen if you have a weakened immune system.

Doctors treat staph infections with antibiotics to prevent other serious complications, such as a blood infection.

Not all ingrown hairs become infected, and they usually resolve on their own in a few days.

If the hair is near the skin’s surface, however, you may be able to remove it by gently grasping it with sterilized tweezers.

Don’t dig for the hair, as this increases the risk of causing or spreading an infection.

Never pick or pop an infected ingrown hair, as this also increases the risk of complications.

Instead, gently scrub the area with warm water and soap. This can help ease the ingrown hair out of the skin on its own.

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Infected ingrown hairs can lead to the following complications:

  • changes in skin color
  • permanent scarring
  • hair loss
  • hair follicle destruction

Taking measures to prevent ingrown hairs and treating any infections promptly can help prevent these.

It’s best to see a doctor if symptoms:

  • worsen rather than improve
  • don’t improve within a few days
  • spread to the surrounding skin
  • are severe
  • often recur

Infected ingrown hairs can be uncomfortable, but most clear up on their own in 7–10 days with good hygiene.

After the infection has cleared, you may have a scar or discolored skin that can last for several months.

If ingrown hair infections recur or are severe, you may have an underlying condition that needs medical treatment.

Preventing ingrown hairs can decrease your risk of related infections.

When shaving or waxing, try the following tips:

  • Wash the skin first to help prevent bacteria from entering the skin.
  • Change your razor frequently and rinse it after every stroke.
  • Avoid dull blades.
  • Remove hair in the direction of growth.
  • Use shave gel and warm water.
  • Apply lotion to the area afterward.
  • Use an exfoliating scrub to remove dead skin cells.

If you continue having infected ingrown hairs in the same area, such as your face, you might consider other methods of hair removal, such as laser treatment.

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How do you treat infected ingrown hair?

Most ingrown hair infections resolve in time with good hygiene, and over-the-counter creams may also help. Picking at the hair can increase the risk of an infection spreading or worsening. If the infection becomes severe, a doctor may recommend antibiotics or other treatment.

What happens if an infected ingrown hair goes untreated?

Most ingrown hairs will resolve without treatment. If an infection develops and worsens, you may need medical treatment.

Should I squeeze an infected ingrown hair?

Squeezing an ingrown hair will increase the risk of infection. If an infection is present, squeezing the bump may worsen it. Squeezing can also increase the risk of scarring.

What does an infected ingrown hair cyst look like?

There will be a painful bump and swelling, and you may notice pus. You may be able to see the hair inside the bump.

Ingrown hairs are common in areas where people shave. They happen when the skin blocks the emergence of a hair from the follicle, or when a hair grows back into the skin.

If bacteria or other pathogens enter the skin, an infection can develop, leading to a painful bump. These usually resolve with good hygiene after a few days. If they persist, recur, or are severe, consider speaking with a doctor.