With the start of a new school year, there can be a lot of anxiety. For teens, much of it tends to stem from one particular aspect of their appearance: their acne.
Mild or severe, acne often becomes an all-consuming distraction. It can feel like you’re the only one in the world plagued by it, even though it’s the most common skin problem in the United States. At any given moment, there are as many as 50 million Americans coping with acne, and they range in age from adolescents to well into adulthood.
Also lost in the panic of the moment: Almost every case of acne can be successfully treated. It starts with understanding what’s going on and then learning what you can do about it. So, over my next few blog posts, we’ll do just that. I’ll begin here by explaining how a dermatologist diagnoses acne and highlighting some of the most common treatments.
How it’s diagnosed
Acne appears when a pore in our skin clogs. That much you probably already know. Normally, dead skin cells rise to the surface of a pore, where the body then sheds them. But when the body begins making a lot of sebum, an oil that keeps our skin from drying out, the dead skin cells can stick together and become trapped inside the pore.
Compounding matters, bacteria that live on our skin, p.acnes, also sometimes get clogged inside the pore, which is a perfect environment for the bacteria to multiply fast. As that happens, the pore becomes red and swollen. And if the inflammation goes deep into the skin, an acne cyst or nodule will appear.
There are other skin conditions that can look like acne. So, first, a dermatologist will make sure that it is acne. And then they’ll note what type (or types) of acne appear on your skin and grade it on scale of one to four, with four being severe.
How it’s treated
There are lots of effective acne treatments, including over-the-counter medications. The trouble is, what may work well for a friend may do little for you. It can also take several weeks for an acne treatment to make a difference. So, it becomes hard to tell if a given treatment’s even working. Before frustration takes over, see a dermatologist. They’ll design a treatment plan that’s tailored to your acne.
Prescription acne treatments fall into two categories, the kind you apply to the skin and the kind that work throughout the body. Most are applied to the skin. They’re also known as topical treatments. Some help kill the bacteria, others reduce the sebum.
If you have acne cysts and nodules, a medication that works throughout the body may be more appropriate. The most popular types include:
- Antibiotics, which help kill the bacteria and reduce inflammation
- Birth control pills and other medicine aimed at the hormones
- Isotretinoin, the only treatment known to work on all of acne’s causes
There are also procedures that can be performed during an office visit:
- Laser/light therapies: They help reduce the bacteria
- Chemical peels: An effective treatment for blackheads and papules
- Drainage and extraction: When a large cyst doesn’t respond to medication, this may help ease the pain and lessen the chance that the cyst will leave a scar
The earlier you see a dermatologist about your acne, the sooner you can control it, and the better your chances of clearing it up altogether before it becomes more severe.