Acne vulgaris (or just simply acne) is a common skin condition that leads to the formation of unsightly, sometimes painful blemishes.

It occurs when the natural sebaceous oils produced by the skin and dead skin cells clog up the pores. Predominantly occurring in adolescence, acne can leave behind scars and may also lead to low self-esteem and even contribute to depression, so although not physically dangerous, it is important to seek treatment.

Possible acne causes include hormonal changes (during puberty, for example), which can affect the skin’s sebum production, certain medications such as corticosteroids, stress and some endocrine conditions.

What are its symptoms?

Acne symptoms will vary from person to person, depending on the severity of the condition. It usually affects the face but can include the neck, shoulders, back and chest.

The various blemishes associated with acne include:

  • Whiteheads (a blocked pore closed by skin)
  • Blackheads (an open blocked pore, which looks brown)
  • Papules (small red bumps)
  • Pimples (papules that have become infected and have pus at the tip)
  • Nodules (large painful lumps below the skin’s surface)
  • Cysts (pus-filled lumps below the skin’s surface).

Oily skin may occur, as well as dark spots and scarring, not to mention the adverse psychological impact that the condition can have.

How is it diagnosed?

With a wide range of safe over-the-counter treatments available for acne, it’s only necessary to see a doctor when self-care has not helped. When examining you, your doctor may ask about any other conditions you may have, medication you’re taking or other key personal information. You may also be referred to a dermatologist to rule out skin conditions similar to acne, like rosacea and eczema, and to manage the more severe type.

What are your treatment options?

There are extensive acne treatment options, depending on the severity of the condition. Most acne medication works by regulating the skin’s oil production, unblocking the pores, speeding up the production of healthy new cells, reducing inflammation and fighting bacteria that can cause infection. Topical treatments with active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid can be used for mild cases and don’t require a prescription.

More severe cases may require stronger prescription treatments such as antibiotic lotions or pills and oral contraceptives for females to help regulate hormone levels. For the worst cases, Isotretinoin (Roaccutane) can be considered but this should only be used under the strict supervision of a doctor. It can’t be used during pregnancy as it can cause birth defects.

Can it be prevented?

Acne prevention isn’t always possible, but it can be kept under control. It’s usually associated with the teenage years and the hormonal changes of puberty, however it can persist into adulthood. While there’s little evidence to support the argument that what you eat can directly cause acne, your diet may make it worse, so ensure you eat a healthy balanced diet. Some studies indicate that reducing your intake of simple carbohydrates could help.

Taking proper care of your skin is also important. Use a gentle cleanser daily but don’t scrub or wash too frequently as this may actually stimulate oil production and aggravate the condition. Only touch affected areas with clean hands and avoid picking or squeezing blemishes as this can lead to inflammation, infection and scarring.

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The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015