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Acne Causes and Treatment

Updated on December 31, 2016

Acne is a skin disorder in which the pores of the sebaceous glands are plugged by an oily deposit. The chief symptoms of acne are blackheads, white-heads, and pimples, which occur mostly on the face, shoulders, and back. The disorder, especially common among teenagers, usually clears up before the age of 30.

Factors that may contribute to acne include a diet too rich in sugar, chocolate, nuts, and fat; poor care of the skin; emotional strain; and a hereditary tendency toward oily skin.

Acne Causes

Acne can vary from the occasional spot to a severe disease that may cause both skin and psychological scarring. It is generally a curse of the teenage years but may strike later in life - particularly in women.

The exact cause of acne is unknown, but it is believed that an increased secretion of the sex hormones, particularly androgens, or male sex hormones, plays an important part. During the teens these hormones may cause the sebaceous glands of the skin, which normally secrete an oily material, to become overly active. Excess oil may collect in the pores of the skin and form oily plugs called whiteheads. If the oily plugs are not entirely enclosed by the pores, they turn black, because of a chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air, and are called blackheads.

Pimples are due to a blockage in the outflow of oil from the thousands of tiny oil glands in the skin. This blockage can be due to dirt, flakes of dead skin, or a thickening and excess production of the oil itself. Once the opening of the oil duct becomes blocked, the gland becomes dilated with the thick oil, then inflamed and eventually infected. The result is a white head, with the surrounding red area of infection. The face, upper chest, upper back and neck are the areas commonly affected. Fringes and long hair can aggravate the condition. The severity of your acne will also depend greatly on your choice of parents. If one or both of them had severe acne, you have a good chance of developing the same problem.

There are many different subtypes of acne that enable doctors (especially skin specialists) to determine more accurately the type of treatment necessary, and the likely outcome. Acne vulgaris is one of the most severe forms and almost invariably results in scarring of the face, back and chest.

The hormonal changes associated with the transition from childhood to adult life are the major aggravating factor in acne, as the hormones cause changes to the skin and to the thickness of the oil, and may worsen (or occasionally improve) acne. Pregnancy, menopause and the oral contraceptive pill may all influence pimples in this way. There is no evidence that vitamins, diet or herbs have any effect on pimples.

Acne Treatment

Acne cannot be cured, but in the majority of cases it can be reasonably controlled. You should ensure that your skin is kept clean with a mild soap and face cloth. Then some of the many creams and lotions available from pharmacists can be tried. These should be used carefully and regularly, and the instructions for their use should be scrupulously followed. Some can cause quite severe reactions if not used strictly as directed. The vast majority of sufferers can have their acne controlled in this way.

If these simple measures are not successful, doctors can prescribe further treatment. This will involve combinations of antibiotics by mouth that may be taken in the short term for acute flare ups, or in the long term to prevent the occurrence of acne. Antibiotics in the tetracycline class are most commonly used for this purpose. Skin lotions or creams containing antibiotics and/or steroids can also be prescribed. Sometimes, changing a woman's hormonal balance by putting her on the oral contraceptive pill or using other hormones can control acne.

In rare cases, referral to a skin specialist for more exotic forms of treatment is required. These would include a potent drug called isotretinoin (which can cause birth deformities if used during pregnancy), injections of a steroid called triamcinolone into the skin around particularly bad eruptions of acne, and abrading away the skin around the scars that are left behind after acne attacks.

Unfortunately, the treatment of adults with maturity onset acne is far harder than the juvenile acne.

Please Note:


  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.

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