Cystic acne: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Cystic acne is a severe type of acne in which the pores in the skin become blocked, leading to infection and inflammation.

The skin condition mainly affects the face, but also often affects the upper trunk and upper arms.

Acne most often affects adolescents and young adults, with an estimated 80 percent of people between 11 and 30 years of age experiencing acne at some point.

Cystic acne is the most severe form and affects far fewer people.

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that acne was the top reason people gave for visiting a dermatologist.

Fast facts on cystic acne

Here are some key points about cystic acne. More details and supporting information is in the body of this article.

While acne is very common, cystic acne is relatively uncommon and more severe.

The main factors behind cystic acne are the hormonal changes in puberty, but it can occur in older individuals, too.

Cystic acne is not caused by chocolate, nuts, or greasy foods, nor by poor hygiene or masturbation.

Cystic acne can be painful, as well as emotionally distressing because of its effects on facial appearance.

Treatment

Acne scarring
Cysts can cause damage to the skin that leads to scarring.

The treatment of severe, cystic acne requires the help of a specialist doctor and some self-care measures. Drug treatment can be effective at preventing cysts and scarring.

Mild or moderate acne can be managed with the help of a doctor. However, severe acne characterized by nodules and cysts may need referral to a specialist, as it might leave scars or already show signs of scarring. This is partly because the main drugs used to treat cystic acne are tightly controlled.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a treatment available to people with acne of any severity. It is also a treatment option for people with severe acne who are awaiting specialist treatment.

Benzoyl peroxide is available directly from pharmacies over the counter in a number of formulations that may be applied to the skin. It has been a mainstay in the treatment of acne for over 50 years, and works by killing bacteria, particularly Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes). Some benzoyl peroxide treatments are also available to purchase online.

It also breaks up comedones. These include whiteheads and blackheads.

Water-based and alcohol-based formulations of benzoyl peroxide are available, and the most appropriate form depends on skin type. Alcohol-based preparations have a drying effect, making these more suitable for people with oily skin.

Benzoyl peroxide products, which include cleansing liquids and bars, lotions, creams, and gels, are used once or twice a day. The most common side-effect is skin irritation. Allergies do not commonly occur.

Drug treatment with isotretinoin

Isotretinoin is a prescription drug for the treatment of cystic acne, sold under a number of brand names in the United States, including Absorica, Amnesteem, Claravis, Myorisan, and Sotret.

Isotretinoin is a very effective treatment, but it has significant side effects and is dangerous to an unborn child. It is usually taken at a dosage of 1 milligram (mg) for every kilogram of body weight once daily for 16 to 20 weeks.

For cases of moderate acne, isotretinoin is not recommended until standard treatment with oral antibiotics has been tried and found to be ineffective. Isotretinoin is, however, recommended as a first-line treatment for severe acne.

Potential adverse effects associated with the use of isotretinoin include:

eye and genital dryness

chapped lips

joint pains

depression

liver damage

elevated lipid levels

Isotretinoin is a teratogenic drug. This means that taking it during pregnancy at any dose, even for a short time, can lead to congenital deformities.

Isotretinoin may also lead to the loss of the pregnancy or premature birth and can cause the death of the newborn infant.

Women who can become pregnant are, therefore, required to use two methods of contraception for 1 month before, during, and at least a month after treatment with isotretinoin.

Testing for pregnancy is also required before starting isotretinoin and then every month until 1 month after stopping the drug.

The conditions for being prescribed the drug include producing two negative pregnancy tests.

Steroid injections

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