17th August, 20204 min read

When to see a doctor about acne

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Alex Bussey
Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 18/08/2020
Medically reviewed

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Acne is a common skin condition that develops when the oil glands in your skin produce too much oil (known as sebum).

This oil combines with other debris (waste), such as dead skin cells, to clog some of your hair follicles — forming spots or pimples on the surface of your skin.

These spots are normally small, black or yellow in colour but they may become red or inflamed if they become infected.

Acne is more common in teenagers and young adults, but it can develop at any time in your life. Experts think that around 3% of adults have acne over the age of 35.

If you have acne, you might feel like it’s best to try and treat it at home, but moderate or severe acne may need to be treated by a doctor.

Some cases of mild acne also need to be checked by a doctor — particularly if they don’t respond to treatments.

How severe is your acne?

Some doctors split acne into 3 different categories:

  • mild acne — where most of your spots are small and there isn’t inflammation or swelling
  • moderate acne — where some of your spots are red, swollen or inflamed
  • severe acne — where you have a lot of swollen or inflamed red spots. You may also have some scars or nodules, which are hard lumps that form under your skin. Severe acne can also cause cysts, which are large, pus-filled lumps that look a little bit like boils

Moderate or severe acne should always be treated by a doctor. They will examine your skin and talk you through your options before prescribing a treatment to help clear your acne.

Treatment may take several weeks or months to start working, but they normally do a good job of clearing your skin and stopping spots from returning. Try to be patient and use your medications properly.

If your acne is very bad, your doctor may also refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist).

When should mild acne be treated by a doctor?

You might be able to treat some cases of mild acne at home.

Experts recommend gently washing your skin with soap, or using a topical cream or gel that’s designed to treat acne.

If that doesn't work, try talking to a pharmacist. They may be able to recommend a topical treatment that contains an ingredient like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

These substances help to clear your acne by unblocking your pores, or killing some of the germs that cause spots to become red or inflamed on your skin.

But these treatments don’t work for everyone. If you’ve been using one for 6 to 8 weeks and your acne still hasn’t cleared up, it might be time to speak with a doctor instead.

Man with acne looking unhappy

You should also consider talking to a doctor if your acne is making you feel depressed, or stopping you from going to parties or other social events.

If you have mild to moderate acne and you’re not sure whether you need to see a doctor, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Did you first get acne when you were very young (under 11 years old)?
  • Do you feel like you’ve tried several home remedies for acne, and that nothing seems to work?
  • Does your acne leave scars or dark spots when it clears?
  • Do you get new breakouts every time your acne starts to clear?
  • Do you have pimple-like bumps in unusual places, such as your armpit, groin, thighs?
  • Have you managed to clear the acne on your face, but not the acne on your back or chest?
  • Do you feel like you’ve had acne for years?
  • Have you felt depressed, anxious, or less interested in hanging out with your friends since you first noticed your acne?
  • Do you ever want to hide your face because of your acne?

If you answer yes to 4 or more of these questions, it might be worth talking to your doctor.

Acne can be upsetting and it may cause you some discomfort but most cases are treatable.

Key points

  • moderate or severe acne should always be treated by a doctor
  • if you’ve been using a treatment for 6 to 8 weeks and your acne still hasn’t cleared up, it might be time to speak with a doctor
  • speak to a doctor if your acne is making you feel depressed
  • moderate or severe acne may not clear up unless it's treated by a doctor
  • some cases of mild acne also need to be checked by a doctor — particularly if they don’t respond to treatments
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