How to Treat Inflamed Acne

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There are two categories of acne: inflammatory and non-inflammatory. Non-inflammatory acne occurs when pores become clogged or closed, which leads to blemishes like blackheads.

Inflammatory acne occurs when bacteria infect the blocked pore. The immune system tries to combat the bacteria, leading to inflammation and, at times, more severe types of blemishes like cysts.

Though it may be irritating to live with, there are various treatment options for inflammatory acne, and there are also ways to reduce the chance or severity of future breakouts.

A teenage girl looking at herself in the mirror
Capuski / Getty Images

You can get inflammatory acne nearly anywhere on your body. It's very common on the face, but also the back, chest, and shoulders. You can even get inflammatory breakouts on the butt. Though aggravating, it's all completely normal.

What's more, nearly anyone can get inflammatory acne. It's especially common in the teenage years, but inflammatory acne can happen in adults too. Even babies can break out in inflamed blemishes

Types of Acne

There are different types of blemishes that develop with non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne.

Non-Inflammatory Acne Types

The two main types of non-inflammatory blemishes are blackheads and whiteheads. These are known as comedones. (One such blemish is called a comedo.)

Comedones are either closed or open. A whitehead is a closed comedo because dead skin cells and sebum fill the pore to the point where the pore's opening is blocked, commonly causing a white-appearing lesion that extends from the skin.

A blackhead is an open comedo because although dead skin cells and sebum fill the pore, it's opening remains unblocked. Because of this, the sebum and dead skin cells are exposed to the air and oxidized, causing a darkish appearance.

Inflammatory Acne Types

The most common types of inflammatory blemishes are:

  • Papules: Comedones that develop into small, inflamed bumps that are red or pink in appearance
  • Pustules: Bumps that are similar to papules but are larger and contain pus
  • Nodules: Solid bumps that occur below the surface of the skin
  • Cysts: Severe type of inflammatory acne where large, fluid-filled bumps occur deep under the skin

Causes

Woman with inflamed acne
Iuliia Mikhalitskaia / Getty Images.


Whether mild to severe, all inflammatory acne breakouts start off as a small pore blockage called a microcomedo.

These blockages are small and usually can't be seen by the naked eye, but eventually they turn into that inflamed pimple you see on your skin. That's because dead skin cells and sebum keep accumulating in the pore, engorging it and making a great home for acne-causing bacteria to set up house. 

All this eventually puts so much pressure on the pore that the pore wall breaks and its contents spill into the skin. White blood cells rush in to help fix the problem, leading to redness, swelling, and irritation. You now have an inflamed acne blemish.

Papules and pustules are the most common lesions, but as inflammatory acne progresses, you may get more severe forms of blemishes, like nodules and cysts. These blemishes happen deeper in the skin and are more likely to cause scarring.

Treatment

You don't have to live with inflammatory acne. Many different treatment options are available.

Professional Treatment Options

For moderate to severe inflammatory acne, you'll want to make an appointment with a dermatologist. They will usually give you antibiotics or prescription acne medication.

Common prescription acne medication and antibiotics include:

  • Azelaic acid
  • Retinoids
  • Dapsone
  • Doxycycline

The more widespread, inflamed, and persistent your acne is, the more important it is to get a dermatologist's help.

Sometimes, a dermatologist may give you a cortisone injection to help reduce inflammation and shrink large cysts. They may even remove large cysts by opening the blemish with a needle or surgical blade and removing the fluid that's inside.

Calm Acne at Home

Inflammatory acne can sometimes be treated at home. Ice or ice packs can be placed on affected areas to help reduce swelling and pain. Over-the-counter (OTC) acne medications are widely available and can help treat breakouts.

OTC acne products commonly contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and sulfur that help clear pores and get rid of bacteria. There are also natural remedies that may help too.

Green tea is one of the most notable remedies as it possesses anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Studies show that when taken orally or applied topically, it may decrease excess sebum and inflamed acne blemishes.

Tea tree oil is another popular remedy that has been shown to have some antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Tea tree oil applied topically may reduce inflamed acne blemishes in mild to moderate cases.

Prevention

There are things you can do that can lessen the chance of future acne breakouts. Washing your skin regularly, especially after exercise and sweating, can remove excess sebum and dead skin cells that can clog pores.

Makeup can also contribute to the clogging of pores. Be sure to clean makeup applicators and remove makeup before bed. Look for makeup or skin products that are noncomedogenic, as they are specifically designed not to clog pores.

Also, avoid popping or squeezing acne breakouts. Doing so may push dead skin cells, pus, or bacteria deeper into the skin, causing more inflammation and sometimes more pain and scarring.

Summary

Inflammatory acne occurs when bacteria infects clogged pores, which leads to the immune system reacting to fight off the bacteria. OTC products with ingredients such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide may treat mild to moderate cases of inflamed acne, and products that contain natural ingredients like tea tree oil and green tea may also help.

However, more severe types of inflammatory acne typically need to be treated with the help of a dermatologist, who can prescribe medications such as azelaic acid or doxycycline. Sometimes. a dermatologist may need to drain large blemishes such as cysts using a blade or needle.

A Word From Verywell

Having inflamed acne can be frustrating and bothersome, but several treatment and prevention strategies are known to help. If OTC or natural acne products don't seem to be working, try talking with a dermatologist to determine what steps you can take to clear your skin. They can prescribe stronger medications for you and help you find effective ways to treat your acne.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne?

    Non-inflammatory acne occurs when clogged pores lead to blemishes. Inflammatory acne occurs when those clogged pores become infected with bacteria. The immune system reacts to fight the bacteria, causing inflammation.

  • How long does it take for inflamed acne to disappear?

    It can vary from person to person. For example, one person's acne may take longer to disappear due to hormones, while another may take longer due to lifestyle factors like their job or personal hygiene.

    However, acne typically gets better with treatment, with noticeable improvement usually seen after two to three months with consistent and correct treatment.

  • Is drinking water good for your skin?

    Yes, drinking water is good for your skin. Drinking water hydrates the skin, helping to ensure it does not dry out. This can limit the overproduction of sebum that can clog pores. Staying hydrated also supports the body's immune system to fight off bacteria that may infect the skin.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.