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The causes of acne and how to treat it

It might be something that you associate with your teens, but acne can affect us right into adulthood. As well as causing spots and an oily complexion, the condition can leave you with skin that is hot or painful to touch. Outbreaks most commonly occur on the face, but can also affect your back and chest too. While its appearance can make people feel self-conscious, it’s a common, relatable condition. Approximately 80% of us will be affected at some point, so you’re not alone!

So, what causes it?

Our skin is made up of thousands of hair follicles. These follicles contain sebaceous glands, responsible for producing grease to prevent our skin from drying out. That acne outbreak is the result of these glands producing too much oil, blocking the follicles and causing inflammation – and those pesky spots.

An increase in testosterone is thought to commonly play a role in the problem. And while it’s more likely to strike during your already-difficult teen years, it can affect people at any age. In fact, many women are mildly affected just before their period. 

You may have noticed different kind of spots, so let’s break them down: 

  1. Blackheads: the colour of these small bumps comes from pigmentation and not, as many people believe, dirt.
  2. Whiteheads: similar to blackheads but firmer and won’t empty when popped.
  3. Papules: small, red bumps that can be sore to touch.
  4. Pustules: similar to papules but with a white tip caused by a build-up of pus. 
  5. Nodules: large, hard lumps beneath the surface of the skin which can be painful.
  6. Cysts: The most severe form. Large, fluid-filled lumps that look similar to boils.

Acne can also be triggered by medications like steroids and lithium, smoking and some cosmetic products. It can also be hereditary – if one of your parents had the condition, you’re more likely to get severe acne at an early age.

Best ways to treat it? 

Treatment options really depend on the severity. If you have a couple of spots, blackheads or whiteheads, then your pharmacist will be able to recommend a good gel or cream to help them clear up. Benzoyl peroxide is one example of anti-inflammatory that works as an antiseptic to reduce the number of bacteria on the skin and prevent mild acne. 

If your case is more severe, it may require antibiotics, azelaic acid, topical antibiotics or topical retinoids. For women, the combined oral contraceptive pill is sometimes prescribed.

Failing this, a medication called isotretinoin may be prescribed. This is only recommended for severe acne that hasn’t responded to any other treatments. 

Remember that it can take 2-3 months for treatments to take effect so try to be patient and then see your GP if your acne persists. The important thing to remember is that the majority of us will deal with acne at some point, so try not to feel too self-conscious about it and remember that it will pass. 

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