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Check out this great video DoveMed found discussing how dead skin cells and hair cause the blockage of pores that eventually end up as acne. Is it that blockage alone that creates acne? Click on the video to find out. 

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Acne Vulgaris
  • Pimples
  • Zits

What is Acne? (Definition/Background Information)

  • Acne, also known as pimples or zits, is a common skin condition, when inflamed red spots or lesions appear on the face, neck, shoulders, and other regions
  • This condition occurs when the tiny follicles (pilosebaceous glands and sebaceous glands) become clogged with dead cells and oil. Acne manifests itself as whiteheads, blackheads, pustules, papules ,nodules, and cysts
  • Acne is frequently observed in adolescents and is caused due to the hormonal changes that take place during that period
  • Depending on the severity of the condition, Acne may be treated with both passive and active measures. These include the use of cleansers, topical creams and gels, oral medications, light-based treatments, and other options

Acne skin condition may not be preventable, but the contributing factors, such as cosmetics, inflammation, the follicular plugging, and other triggers, which aggravate the condition may be controlled.

Who gets Acne? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Acne is commonly seen during adolescence. However, younger children and adults can also be affected
  • The skin condition affects both teenage boys and girls equally
  • Acne in boys is statistically more likely to be severe
  • There is no racial or ethnic predilection

What are the Risk Factors for Acne? (Predisposing Factors)

Following are the risk factors of Acne:

  • Increase in the hormone testosterone and other androgens that takes place during puberty puts adolescents at a high risk for Acne
  • The severity of the condition can run in families; and hence, those with parents/siblings having a positive medical history, may develop Acne
  • Acne is sometimes associated with conditions, such as menstrual periods, pregnancy, menopause, or disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Medications containing glucocorticosteroids and androgens can trigger this skin condition
  • Applying oily or greasy substances on skin, like certain cosmetics
  • Tight clothes and innerwear, helmets, bags, and even the frequent use of mobile phones, which put constant pressure or cause friction on the skin are risk factors

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Acne? (Etiology)

  • The roots of the hair (called follicles) are attached to sebaceous glands. These glands secrete oil (sebum) to lubricate the hair shaft and skin surface skin around it. When excess oil mixes with dead skin cells to plug the hair follicles, it leads to the formation of Acne
  • The facial pilosebaceous glands have a tiny, barely detectable hair associated with the oil   (sebaceous) gland complex
  • The blocked hair follicles appear as a surface lump (white, black or red, inflamed) or a bulge, in which normal skin bacteria grow in abnormally high numbers.
  • If the opening of the oil gland stays small, the accumulation appears as a flesh-colored bump termed a whitehead
  • If the opening is spread wider than usual, letting the oil contents oxidize and darken, this is termed a blackhead
  • If the increased bacteria or other biochemical phenomena trigger inflammation, then redness or pustule formation appear, called papules or pustules
  • From deeper sources of inflammation, Acne cysts and Acne nodules appear

The following factors may trigger Acne by increasing the sebum production, or have a worsening effect on an individual already with Acne:

  • Hormonal changes during puberty
  • Certain drugs that contain androgens and corticosteroids
  • There are some contributions of diet to Acne, but they are generally considered to be of lesser import. If a patient and provider determine a dietary trigger, good compliance with restriction is necessary
  • Stress

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Acne?

The signs and symptoms of Acne are as follows:

  • The face, neck, chest, back, and shoulders, are usual sites of Acne skin lesions. However, almost all individuals are affected by lesions on the face

The skin lesions are categorized as inflammatory and non-inflammatory:

  • Inflammatory lesions are of the following type:
    • Firm red lesions formed in deeper layers of the skin known as cysts
    • Firm or fluctuant lesions on the surface of the skin known as nodules
    • Small raised projections, called papules
    • Pustules or pimples, which are pus-filled tiny  bumps
  • Non-inflammatory lesions are of the following type:
    • Whiteheads and blackheads (collectively called comedones) that form, when hair follicle openings are clogged with oil, dead cells, and bacteria

Nodules and skin cysts that are deep into the skin may cause scarring of the skin, which may be permanent.

How is Acne Diagnosed?

  • Acne is diagnosed through a simple physical examination, by the physician or dermatologist
  • The healthcare provider may also ask many questions related to the individual’s age, family medical history, current medications, cosmetics, body lotions used, other medical conditions, infections, etc.

Other tests and analysis for Acne may include:

  • If secondary infections develop, then a culture test may be done
  • In non-adolescent individuals, further medical investigations are often needed to determine the cause of increased testosterone and other androgens. For example - if Acne is caused by PCOS, then an ultrasound of abdomen looking for ovarian cysts may be performed, and hormonal blood levels analyzed
  • Invasive methods, such as a skin biopsy is typically not required; Acne diagnosis can be made through a physical examination itself

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Acne?

Some of the complications of Acne include:

  • Increased psychological stress, which affects one’s performance at school and college
  • Permanent pitting and scarring of the skin on one’s face and neck - cosmetic surgery may be required to remove such scars and marks in some cases
  • Side effects of the local/topical (antiseptic, anti-inflammatory) applications and oral medications

How is Acne Treated?

Acne skin condition has several passive and active treatment measures available. All these measures work in different ways to treat any or all of the causative factors, such as:

  • By regulating the excess oil production
  • Through dead skin cell management
  • Destroying infectious bacteria, thereby controlling the inflammation
  • Blocking the effect of hormones on the pilosebaceous glands

Treatment measures prescribed are dependent upon the severity of the skin condition. These measures are outlined below:

  • Gentle soaps and other cleansers remove surface oils and help control acne. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid, glycolic acid) help soften the plugs when used as cleansers or peels
  • Use of antiseptic, antibiotic topical applications, anti-inflammatory gels, lotions and creams. Benzoyl peroxide is the most common topical for milder forms of Acne and topical retinoids are used for opening the hair follicles and decreasing sebum (oil) production. Azelaic acid opens plugged sebaceous glands. Topical retinoids (tretinoin, tazarotene, adapalene) help treat Acne by removing the plugs  from the follicle openings
  • A newly FDA-approved topical medication clascoterone blocks the androgen receptors
  • Oral antibiotics are often used in the treatment of Acne, both to decrease the colonization by normal bacteria, and because they have an anti-inflammatory effect
  • Spironolactone is used as an oral antiandrogen medication in females, particularly in cases of PCOS
  • In case of severe Acne, isotretinoin is prescribed (though, NOT for pregnant women). However, there may be some adverse side effects for this drug, and therefore, the patient needs to be closely monitored
  • If scarring has developed, many treatment options are available. Before attempting scar treatments, the active Acne must be controlled to avoid the need for additional treatments

Note: Isotretinoin should NOT be used on pregnant women, or on women who are planning to become pregnant. This is very important because isotretinoin can cause fetal abnormalities and malformations, during the growth of the fetus in the mother’s womb, termed teratogenic defects of isotretinoin. Hence, a pregnancy test is usually performed in women of child-bearing age, before starting treatment with isotretinoin.

Taking care of oneself, being clean and hygienic (especially face and hands), avoiding the urge to touch/break the blisters, avoiding oily make-ups and creams, drinking lots of water, etc. are all simple practices that can ensure a faster recovery from Acne.

How can Acne be Prevented?

  • Acne occurs due to various medical factors and conditions that come together; it cannot be prevented
  • There are factors that either contribute to Acne formation, or aggravate the severity of its state/condition - those factors that can be controlled have to be recognized, in order to achieve an early recovery from Acne
  • Heavy cover-up makeup, constant high humidity, and exposure to aerosolized oils contribute to Acne risk
  • Avoid a high glycemic diet

The glycemic index measures the rate of increase in blood glucose levels, following a meal. Foods with a high glycemic index include processed carbohydrates, among others. Vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and many fruits have a low glycemic index.

What is the Prognosis of Acne? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

Normally, Acne disappears after a period of time - once the adolescence-teenage years pass. In some cases, they are known to be present, well into adulthood (even up to the mid-thirties).

  • Depending on the severity of the condition, Acne shows a clinical response within 8-12 weeks of suitable and early treatment, leaving no scars in most cases
  • Very severe cases of Acne may cause permanent facial marks, deep pits, pigmented scars, etc., if proper treatment is not administered
  • Due to its physical appearance, Acne could impose a psychological trauma on the individuals, especially on teenagers, causing depression and reduced self-esteem

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Acne:

  • There is no evidence to prove that oily foods and chocolate-based products have an influence on Acne
  • Cleaning the skin too hard with strong chemicals or soaps may aggravate the skin condition
  • The presence of dirt on the body is not a causative factor for Acne; but, it helps to be clean and hygienic

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

American Academy of Dermatology
930 E. Woodfield Road Schaumburg, IL 60173
Phone: (866) 503-SKIN (7546)
Fax: (847) 240-1859
Website: http://www.aad.org

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001876/ (accessed on 08/03/14)

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/acne/DS00169 (accessed on 08/03/14)

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Archer, C. B., Cohen, S. N., Baron, S. E., British Association of, Dermatologists, & Royal College of General, Practitioners. (2012). Guidance on the diagnosis and clinical management of acne. Clin Exp Dermatol, 37 Suppl 1, 1-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2230.2012.04335.x

Burris, J., Rietkerk, W., & Woolf, K. (2013). Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. J Acad Nutr Diet, 113(3), 416-430. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.11.016

Paoli, A., Grimaldi, K., Toniolo, L., Canato, M., Bianco, A., & Fratter, A. (2012). Nutrition and acne: therapeutic potential of ketogenic diets. Skin Pharmacol Physiol, 25(3), 111-117. doi: 10.1159/000336404

Smith, E. V., Grindlay, D. J., & Williams, H. C. (2011). What's new in acne? An analysis of systematic reviews published in 2009-2010. Clin Exp Dermatol, 36(2), 119-122; quiz 123. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2230.2010.03921.x

Titus, S., & Hodge, J. (2012). Diagnosis and treatment of acne. Am Fam Physician, 86(8), 734-740.

Ramrakha, S., Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., Dalgard, F., Ambler, A., Kokaua, J., ... & Poulton, R. (2015). Cumulative mental health consequences of acne: 23‐year follow‐up in a general population birth cohort study. British Journal of Dermatology.

Schlosser, B. J., Alikhan, A., Baldwin, H. E., Berson, D. S., Bowe, W. P., Graber, E. M., ... & Reynolds, R. V. (2016). Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris.

Meyer, K., Pappas, A., Dunn, K., Cula, G. O., Seo, I., Ruvolo, E., & Batchvarova, N. (2015). Evaluation of Seasonal Changes in Facial Skin With and Without Acne. Journal of drugs in dermatology: JDD, 14(6), 593-601.

Zaenglein, A. L., Pathy, A. L., Schlosser, B. J., Alikhan, A., Baldwin, H. E., Berson, D. S., ... & Keri, J. E. (2016). Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.