What is acne? A medical overview

Acne is a skin condition which often affects teenagers and young adults, although it can occur at any age. The main symptoms are spots of different types, such as: blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules and nodules (sometimes called cysts). These spots can be painful and sore, and the skin is often oilier. Acne severity is sometimes measured as mild, moderate, moderately severe or severe. Acne sometimes leaves scars on the skin with changed colour, dents or raised marks.
Acne can affect different areas of skin on a person’s body. The face, especially the ‘T zone’ (forehead and nose), is often affected. Other parts of the body can have acne too, such as the back, neck, shoulders and chest.
The causes of acne are when skin pores/follicles become blocked, for example when the sebaceous glands produce too much oil. A spot develops when the blocked pore is infected by the normal bacteria living on the skin. Acne often affects the face because there are a lot of sebaceous glands located there. There can be different underlying reasons for why acne occurs, such as changes in hormones during puberty.
A ‘flare-up’ or ‘break-out’ describes a time when someone’s acne is more severe than usual. In general, anything that can make the skin produce more oils can be a trigger for an acne flare-up. A trigger for one person’s acne may not be a trigger for another person’s.
There are different medical treatments available for acne. Examples include topical treatments (applied to the skin) and antibiotic tablets. Some types of treatment can be bought from a shop (‘over-the-counter’). Other treatments must be prescribed after visiting a medical professional such as a General Practitioner (GP), nurse or dermatologist. Only dermatologists can prescribe the treatment isotretinoin tablets.


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