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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet].

Acne

Acne vulgaris; Cystic acne; Pimples; Zits

Last reviewed: October 18, 2013.

Acne is a skin condition that causes pimples or "zits." Whiteheads, blackheads, and red, inflamed patches of skin (such as cysts) may develop.

Causes

Acne occurs when tiny holes on the surface of the skin become clogged. These holes are called pores.

  • Each pore opens to a follicle. A follicle contains a hair and an oil gland. The oil released by the gland helps remove old skin cells and keeps your skin soft.
  • When glands produce too much oil, the pores can become blocked. Dirt, bacteria, and cells build up. The blockage is called a plug or comedone.
  • If the top of the plug is white, it is called a whitehead.
  • If the top of the plug is dark, it is called a blackhead.
  • If the plug breaks open, swelling and red bumps occur.
  • Acne that is deep in your skin can cause hard, painful cysts. This is called cystic acne.
Acne, cystic on the chest

Acne is most common in teenagers, but anyone can get acne, even babies. The problem tends to run in families.

Some things that may trigger acne include:

Research does not show that chocolate, nuts, and greasy foods cause acne. However, diets high in refined sugars or dairy products may be related to acne in some people.

Symptoms

Acne commonly appears on the face and shoulders. It may also occur on the trunk, arms, legs, and buttocks. Skin changes include:

Blackheads (comedones)

Exams and Tests

Your doctor can diagnose acne by looking at your skin. Testing is not needed in most cases.

Treatment

SELF-CARE

Steps you can take to help your acne:

  • Clean your skin gently with a mild, nondrying soap (such as Dove, Neutrogena, Cetaphil, CeraVe, or Basics).
  • Look for water-based or "noncomedogenic" formulas for cosmetics and skin creams. (Noncomedogenic products have been tested and proven not to clog pores and cause acne.)
  • Remove all dirt or make-up. Wash once or twice a day, including after exercising.
  • Avoid scrubbing or repeated skin washing.
  • Shampoo your hair daily, especially if it is oily.
  • Comb or pull your hair back to keep the hair out of your face.

What NOT to do:

  • Try not to squeeze, scratch, pick, or rub the pimples. This can lead to skin infections and scarring.
  • Avoid wearing tight headbands, baseball caps, and other hats.
  • Avoid touching your face with your hands or fingers.
  • Avoid greasy cosmetics or creams.
  • Do not leave make-up on overnight.

If these steps do not clear up the blemishes, try over-the-counter acne medicines that you apply to your skin.

A small amount of sun exposure may improve acne slightly, but tanning mostly hides the acne. Too much exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet rays is not recommended because it increases the risk for skin cancer.

MEDICINES FROM YOUR HEALTH CARE PROVIDER

If pimples are still a problem, a health care provider can prescribe stronger medications and discuss other options with you.

Antibiotics may help some people with acne:

Creams or gels applied to the skin may be prescribed:

For women whose acne is caused or made worse by hormones:

  • A pill called spironolactone may help
  • Birth control pills may help in some cases, though they may make acne worse in some women.

Minor procedures or treatments may also be helpful:

People who have cystic acne and scarring may try a medicine called isotretinoin (Accutane). You will be watched closely when taking this medicine because of its side effects.

Pregnant women should NOT take Accutane, because it causes severe birth defects.

  • Women taking Accutane must use two forms of birth control before starting the drug and enroll in the iPledge program.
  • Your doctor will follow you on this drug and you will have regular blood tests.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most of the time, acne goes away after the teenage years, but it may last into middle age. The condition often responds well to treatment after 6 - 8 weeks, but may flare up from time to time.

Scarring may occur if severe acne is not treated. Some people become very depressed if acne is not treated.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your doctor or a dermatologist if:

  • Self-care steps and over-the-counter medicine do not help after several months
  • Your acne is very bad (for example, you have a lot of redness around the pimples, or you have cysts).
  • Your acne is getting worse.
  • You develop scars as your acne clears up.
  • Acne is causing emotional stress.
Adult facial acne

If your baby has acne, call the baby's health care provider if acne does not clear up on its own within 3 months.

References

  1. Zaenglein AL, Thiboutot DM. Acne vulgaris. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV, et al, eds. Dermatology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2012:chap 36.

Review Date: 10/18/2013.

Reviewed by: Richard J. Moskowitz, MD, Dermatologist in Private Practice, Mineola, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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Figures

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    Acne - close-up of pustular lesions.
    Blackheads (comedones).
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    Acne, cystic on the face.
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    Acne on the back.
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