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What is acne? Acne is a condition that causes red bumps, commonly called pimples, to form on your skin. It is a chronic (long-term) skin problem that is common in young adults. Acne can last for several years without treatment, but often lasts 2 to 3 years in teenagers.

What causes acne? Acne occurs when pores become blocked with oil, dirt, or bacteria. Pores are openings in your skin where oil, sweat, and hair are produced. Acne can also be caused by overactive sweat glands or high hormone levels.

What are the different types of acne? Acne most often appears on the face, upper chest, and back.

  • Mild acne: Mild acne includes blackheads, whiteheads, or few small pimples. Whiteheads are closed, white bumps that form when the pore is completely blocked. Blackheads are tiny, open dark spots that form when the pore is only partly blocked. Pimples are inflamed bumps that contain pus. They are often caused by clogged pores and develop when whiteheads or blackheads get infected.
    Normal Skin Pore   Whitehead   Blackhead

  • Moderate acne: Moderate acne includes 10 to 40 small raised solid pimples that may contain pus.

  • Severe acne: Severe acne includes more than 40 swollen, hard, painful pimples, lesions (open wounds), or cysts. Cysts are closed, pus-filled pockets of skin. Severe acne appears deep inside the skin, and may need immediate treatment to prevent infection or scarring. Scars look like dips or divots in the skin, and may be discolored.

How is acne diagnosed?

  • Your caregiver will examine you for oily or red skin, blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, or cysts. He may look for scars from previous acne, or ask if you have ever received acne treatment.

  • He may ask if your family members have had acne. If you are female, he may ask if you take birth control pills. He may ask if your acne gets worse when you have your period.

  • Your child may need skin or lab tests if he gets acne before puberty. You may also need lab tests if you get acne as an adult and have other signs and symptoms. This could be a sign that your hormone levels are too high.

How is acne treated? Acne can be controlled but not cured. Begin treatment as soon as possible to prevent problems and to help you feel better about your appearance. Delayed treatment may cause infection, swelling, bleeding, or scarring. You may not see an improvement for 1 to 6 months. You may be given more than one of the following to help control your acne:

  • Medicines:

    • Topical treatments: Topical treatments are medicines that you put on your skin to kill germs, or to treat blackheads or whiteheads. Topicals may also reduce swelling or stop skin from peeling. They are available as gels, creams, pastes, liquids, and cleansers.

    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat an infection caused by bacteria. It may also be given to kill bacteria in your pores. The medicine may be given as a pill, or as a topical ointment.

    • Mild acids: Your caregiver may prescribe salicylic or azelaic acid to help kill bacteria and improve your acne.

    • Hormones: Your caregiver may give you a hormone medicine if you have a hormone imbalance. These medicines may also reduce the amount of oil your pores make.

    • Retinoids: Your caregiver may prescribe this medicine to treat severe acne lesions. You may also receive it if other medicines do not work for you. It comes in a topical cream, or as a pill. You will need close follow up if you take this medicine. Do not use this medicine if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Retinoids may cause serious birth defects. Ask your caregiver for more information before you use this medicine.

    • Steroids: This medicine may be given to decrease inflammation.Steroids are given as an injection into lesions to treat severe acne. You may notice an improvement right away.

  • Surgery: Rarely, surgery is used to treat deep scars or remove acne.

How can I help prevent acne? Use only the acne products that your caregiver recommends. Gels, solutions, cleansers, and medicated gauze pads may be used to reduce oily skin and help prevent acne. Creams, ointments, and lotions are better if you have dry, sensitive skin. Continue to use these products as directed to prevent new acne. Your caregiver may tell you to use your skin products less often if your skin gets irritated. You may need to stop using them until the irritation goes away.

What are the risks of acne?

  • Acne may cause you to feel embarrassed, depressed, frustrated, or self-conscious. Large pimples and lesions may create scars that last 1 year or longer. This is common with severe acne. Some scars may discolor your skin, especially if your skin is dark. You may need surgery for the scars.

  • Some medicines may make your acne worse, or cause dryness or infection. You may need stronger or multiple medicines to treat your acne. Antibiotic medicine may not work for you. Your acne may come back after treatment. Some medicines may cause serious side effects, such as depression or mood swings.

When should I follow up with my caregiver or dermatologist? Follow up with your caregiver or dermatologist 6 to 8 weeks after you start treatment, or as directed. Tell him if you are depressed, anxious, or self-conscious because of your skin problems. Tell your caregivers if you have thoughts of suicide because you feel bad about your appearance. Your caregiver may suggest you see a therapist to talk about your feelings. Tell your caregiver if you live alone or have a history of violent behavior. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

Where can I find support or more information?

  • American Academy of Dermatology
    P.O. Box 4014
    Schaumburg , IL 60168
    Phone: 1- 847 - 330-0230
    Phone: 1- 866 - 503-7546
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver? Contact your caregiver if:

  • You are using retinoid medicine and you are or think you might be pregnant. Contact your caregiver immediately.

  • Your acne is not getting better after treatment or is getting worse. This may mean you need different treatment.

  • You are using medicine to treat acne, and you begin to have mood swings or personality changes.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care? Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You feel depressed, or you are thinking about hurting or killing yourself or someone else.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of the Blausen Databases or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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