Summary Background Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) is a chronic suppurative condition which is poorly responsive to treatment and is characterized by significant morbidity. Successful treatment of HS in patients treated with infliximab for concomitant Crohn's disease has been reported. More recent reports of positive responses to infliximab [an antitumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α agent] in patients who have HS but not Crohn's disease are encouraging. Objectives TNF-α is implicated in many inflammatory disorders and we wished to determine the efficacy of subcutaneous etanercept, a competitive inhibitor of TNF-α in the control of HS symptoms. Methods We commenced six patients with severe, recalcitrant HS on etanercept (25 mg subcutaneously twice weekly in all cases). All patients had a normal chest X-ray and negative purified protein derivative test prior to treatment and were closely monitored throughout the treatment period for signs of infection. Patients self-assessed their disease activity and completed Dermatology Life Quality Index (DLQI) questionnaires immediately before the introduction of therapy and 24 weeks later in the case of four patients, and 12 weeks later in the case of two others. All patients were asked to estimate the time lapse between commencement of treatment and initial response. Results Treatment was well tolerated by all patients with no reported adverse reactions. A marked reduction in self-reported disease activity (mean reduction of 61% at 24 weeks), in DLQI scores (mean reduction of 64% at 24 weeks) and in relapse rates occurred. All patients rated etanercept as their most effective treatment to date. Conclusions Our results show the effectiveness of etanercept in this group of patients with particularly challenging disease. Etanercept, unlike infliximab, may be administered subcutaneously, rendering costly day-case admissions unnecessary.