What's with the lumps in my underarm area?

Originally Published: January 30, 2004 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 13, 2011
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Dear Alice,

I have two lumps in my underarm and they are very sore, they go away after a week or two, and then come back in a couple of weeks. It's been happening for almost two years. Some of my family says it could be a reaction from my deodorant. What is this caused from, what could this be? Is it possible that it is cancerous? It happens under both arms. Sometimes it gets so big that it hurts to even have my arms down to my side.

Dear Reader,

The lumps you describe could be any number of things, including cysts (fluid-filled sacs), enlarged lymph nodes, abscesses (pockets of infection), infected hair follicles, or swollen sweat glands.

Let's talk first about your primary concern: could these lumps be cancer? The only way to find out for sure is for your health care provider to do a biopsy, taking a small sample of one of the lumps and examining it in a laboratory for cancer cells. Luckily, you've included lots of reassuring information about your situation that speaks against these lumps being cancerous:

  • You have noticed the lumps on both underarm areas (cancer is rarely symmetrical).
  • The lumps go away completely (cancer usually doesn't spontaneously recede).
  • You have had this condition for a couple of years without new symptoms or worsening (people with cancer usually notice more and more symptoms over time).

You mention a biweekly cycle of these lumps appearing and then disappearing. If you are a woman, have you ever noticed whether the lumps have a tendency to appear and disappear at a particular point during your monthly menstrual cycle? This might suggest that they are responding to hormonal shifts that occur regularly. For example, a condition called hidradenitis suppurativa causes painful, underarm (or groin) lumps that come and go with hormonal shifts.

Have you ever noticed whether the lumps appear at a certain time in relation to when you shave your armpits? You could be sensitive to a shaving cream that you're using, you could be inadvertently cutting yourself during shaving, or you could be getting an infection of a hair follicle (folliculitis).

And yes, you could be allergic to your deodorant, although the fact that the lumps appear and disappear suggests that they may not be due to deodorant allergy, if you have been using the deodorant all along. You could test whether you're allergic to your deodorant by stopping it for several weeks.

Deciding on treatment for these lumps will require your health care provider to figure out their cause. Try to make the appointment at a time when you expect the lumps to be in full force. If you're at Columbia, you can make an appointment through Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284. Treatments for benign lumps include:

By yourself:

  • hot compresses
  • over-the-counter pain medicine (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen)

With a health care provider:

  • lancing (using a needle or a scalpel to open the lump up and drain out any fluid or pus within)
  • antibiotics for suspected infection (either applied directly to the area or taken by mouth)
  • acne-type medications to control outbreaks
  • birth control pills or other hormonal manipulations to even out the hormones that may be encouraging the swelling

A couple of things absolutely NOT to do:

  • Don't squeeze the lumps in an effort to "pop" them.
  • Don't ever try to poke the lumps with a needle in an effort to drain them yourself.

Squeezing or poking the lumps could result in a serious infection. Since you are experiencing significant pain, your best course of action at this point is to see a health care provider. Hopefully they can quickly diagnose the lumps and make them disappear for good!

Alice

December 12, 2012

520084
Thank you for your comments. I am a 38 yr old male with similar symptoms. I have multiple tender red bumps in both armpits, larger than any pimple, that seem to have appeared overnight. Im going...
Thank you for your comments. I am a 38 yr old male with similar symptoms. I have multiple tender red bumps in both armpits, larger than any pimple, that seem to have appeared overnight. Im going to switch deodorants and see if that helps.

February 4, 2008

21410

Hi.

I've had the same thing, exactly as the reader has described it. I've been to the doctor a few times and they have not been able to figure anything out. I also believe it's due to...

Hi.

I've had the same thing, exactly as the reader has described it. I've been to the doctor a few times and they have not been able to figure anything out. I also believe it's due to deoderant possibly. I'm a man, so I know it's not due to the monthly cycle :)  I've recently switched to this all natural crystal stone deoderant... it's working so far. Try it.

April 1, 2005

20880
Dear Alice,

I just came from the dermatologist, where I had two abscesses removed from one armpit. My symptoms were 2 swollen, red little nodules about the size of peas. One was especially red...

Dear Alice,

I just came from the dermatologist, where I had two abscesses removed from one armpit. My symptoms were 2 swollen, red little nodules about the size of peas. One was especially red and the surrounding area was red. So although I recently had one in my other armpit that went away on its own (the redness never spread) — this time I decided to see a doctor since my armpit was so sore that it was uncomfortable to put my arm down. I figured they were ingrown hairs. My doc cut them out and said no, he found no hairs, so they must have been abscesses in a couple of follicles. Abscesses are pus-filled sacs that develop when your body is trying to stave off an infection. So guess what? The doc contributed it to a dirty razor blade! He advised me to dip my razor in alcohol before using it. I guess I am just more susceptible to bacteria now or something because I have been doing the same routine, same throwaway shavers, etc., for years. But after going through this, you can bet I will keep my razor in an alcohol dip from now on.