Acne is a common disease of the skin, caused by hair follicles becoming blocked. It is characterised by pimples (zits), blackheads or whiteheads, and sometimes scarring. Acne can be persistent, but effective treatments are available.
Most people will get acne at some time during their lives. Anyone can get acne, even babies, but it is most common in teenagers. The most common form of acne (medical name: acne vulgaris) affects people during their teenage and early twenties. In some people, however, the condition may persist in adulthood.
You should consult your doctor if your baby develops acne that does not clear up on its own within three months. Other skin conditions that may resemble acne include rosacea and keratosis pilaris.
There are tiny holes on the surface of the skin, called pores. The pores open to a follicle, which contains a hair and an oil gland. The gland releases oil to lubricate and protect the skin. Acne occurs when the glands produce too much oil, which causes the pores to become blocked; and dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells to build up.
The blockage is called a plug. If the top of the plug is white, it is called a whitehead; if the top of the plug is black, it is called a blackhead. The plugged follicle enlarges producing a bump, which, if it ruptures, releases irritating substances and bacteria that produce inflammation. Inflammation at the surface of the skin produces red bumps (papules) and inflammation deeper in the skin causes pustules (pimples). Even deeper inflammation causes hard painful cysts.
Hormonal changes related to puberty, menstrual periods, pregnancy, birth control pills, or stress can cause excessive oil secretion that results in acne. Oil-based cosmetics and hair products and certain drugs (e.g. steroids, testosterone, and oestrogen) can also cause acne.
People with acne may be advised to minimise intake of milk and sugary foods and drinks.
Acne typically affects the areas of the skin with the highest number of hair follicles, i.e. the face, upper part of the chest, and the back. It may also occur on the arms, legs, and buttocks. The most obvious signs and symptoms of acne include:
A simple examination of your skin allows your doctor to diagnose acne. Laboratory tests are not usually required.
Acne usually responds well to six to eight weeks of treatment, but it may flare up (return) from time to time. The earlier treatment is started, the less likely there will be scarring. Self-care that can help your acne includes:
If self-care and use of non-prescription medication does not produce improvement in your acne you should see your doctor or a dermatologist (skin specialist). Prescription-only medications include:
People with severe acne may be prescribed a powerful oral retinoid, isotretinoin, which works by reducing the skin’s oil secretion. Because of side effects, including birth defects, isotretinoin is only used in close dialogue with your doctor or a dermatologist.
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Other medical treatments and minor procedures that might help your acne include:
Fulton Jr, J. (2013). Acne vulgaris (Web Page). Medscape Reference. New York: WebMD LLC. [Accessed 11/02/14] Oakley A. (2014). Acne Management (Web Page). Hamilton: DermNet New Zealand. [Accessed 11/02/14] O’Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2013). Acne. Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (9th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier Mosby. PubMed Health (2012). Acne (Web Page). Bethesda: U.S. National Library of Medicine. [Accessed 11/02/14]
Created: February 2014