What is acne?

Acne (also known as ‘spots’) is a common skin condition which typically affects teenagers. It can also sometimes affect babies and middle-aged people. The spots can develop on the face, chest, shoulders and back.

What are the symptoms of acne?

Acne spots can vary in appearance and may vary from individual to individual. The main types are:

  • Blackheads – dead skin cells collected up inside
  • Whiteheads – similar to blackheads but are firmer
  • Papules – Inflamed, small (5mm or less in diameter) red bumps
  • Pustules – similar to papules but contain pus on their tip
  • Nodules – solid large lumps which can be painful, typically beneath the skin’s surface
  • Cysts – tender, large pus-filled lumps which can be painful (looks similar to boils)

Acne is categorised into mild, moderate and severe to help select suitable treatment.

Mild acne? – predominately blackheads and whiteheads, with a small number of papules and pustules.

Moderate acne? – more widespread blackheads and whiteheads, with an increased number of papules and pustules.

Severe acne? – A larger number of papules, pustules, nodules or cysts which may be painful. It is possible that scarring can occur in severe acne

What causes acne?

Acne is caused when hair follicles in the skin become blocked. Small glands called sebaceous glands are attached to hair follicles. The glands produce and oily substance called sebum which keep the skin and hair lubricated, preventing it from drying out. In some cases, such as in acne, excess sebum is produced which then mixes with dirt and dead skin cells and blocks the hair follicle. The blocked follicle can push outwards forming whiteheads and blackheads.

Papules, pustules, nodules or cysts can be formed when the blocked follicle is contaminated by bacteria that live on the skin surface.

How can acne be treated?

Treatment of acne will vary patient to patient and some cases it can be down to trial and error. Treatment of acne depends on the severity of the condition. Many products are available over-the-counter for acne treatment. If over-the-counter treatments fail there are medications available on prescription.

Prescription medications that can be used to treat acne include:

  • topical retinoids
  • topical antibiotics
  • azelaic acid
  • antibiotic tablets
  • isotretinoin tablets
  • combined oral contraceptive pill (for women


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