What are treatments and medications for cystic acne?
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications, usually containing salicylic acid and/or benzoyl peroxide, and topical prescription medications have much less a role in the treatment of severe cystic acne than they do in milder acne. Topical acne medications like azelaic acid (Finacea, Azelex), dapsone (Aczone), benzoyl peroxide (BPO) combined with clindamycin (BenzaClin, Duac), BPO and erythromycin (Benzamycin), or BPO and adapalene (Epiduo) would generally not be effective until the deeper cystic acne component is under sustained control. Likewise, the clindamycin/tretinoin combinations like Ziana or Veltin may have more utility in maintenance once the worst of the cystic acne is controlled than in gaining initial control of moderate to severe acne. The same applies to topical antibiotics without benzoyl peroxide such as clindamycin (Cleocin, Clindamax). Other topical antibiotics such as mupirocin (Bactroban), bacitracin and topical sulfacetamide/sulfa drugs (Rosanil) have no role in the management of acute cystic acne. Topical retinoids such as tretinoin (Retin-A, Retin-A Micro) and adapalene (Differin) may still be used for any remaining pimples and also for their long-term beneficial effects in scar renovation. Topical tazarotene (Tazorac) may be more effective in the treatment of severe acne but also much more irritating. Topical retinoids should usually be discontinued while oral retinoids are used because of increased skin dryness.
While hormonal therapies, especially the start of combination oral contraception, may sometimes yield rapid benefits on their own, most patients with cystic acne will require some sort of combination therapy that includes oral antibiotics. The usual combinations of estradiol with levonorgestrel, norgestimate or norethindrone (Levonest, Angeliq, Activella, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Trinessa, Prefest) are usually well tolerated, especially in younger patients. Those oral contraceptives that use drospirenone as the progesterone component (Yasmin, Yaz, Ocella) may be especially useful in some patients but should not be combined with spironolactone discussed below because of a risk of high potassium levels (hyperkalemia). There have been past reports of decreased contraceptive effectiveness if the patient is also on a tetracycline medication, a common combination for cystic acne, but review of the literature supports that while this may occur occasionally, it is actually quite uncommon. That being said, any patient whose previously regular periods change once a tetracycline medication has been started should take additional precautions to avoid pregnancy.
As this is not a simple infection, treatment duration is on the order of months rather than weeks, and the antibiotics such as those in the tetracycline family that have anti-inflammatory properties beyond their antibacterial properties are the usual first choice. A variety of antibiotics have proven useful in cystic acne. All members of the tetracycline family (tetracycline [Diabecline], doxycycline, minocycline [Minocin], demeclocycline) may work and are usually the first medications prescribed. The sustained-released formulations of these medications (Solodyn, Oracea) may be helpful but usually more for maintenance than acute flares. Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra) is often the next class of medication tried. Clindamycin (Cleocin) may be used on its own or combined with rifampin (Rifampicin). Erythromycin (Ery-tab) has a long history of use in acne, but gastrointestinal upset may limit its use. Azithromycin (Zithromax) may be used, but after an initial loading period, it is best used every other day because of the long half-life.
Any medication may cause any drug reaction, but there are some more specific reactions associated with certain classes of medications. Minocycline may have a higher risk of hyperpigmentation and drug hypersensitivity syndromes. The relative risk of severe side effects such as Stevens-Johnson syndrome or toxic epidermal necrolysis may be somewhat higher in people taking trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole than other antibiotics. Likewise any antibiotic may cause the intestinal problem known as pseudomembranous colitis, but clindamycin is more strongly associated with this condition.
Spironolactone (Aldactone) is a diuretic with anti-androgen properties. It is used often in older women for whom oral contraceptives have additional medical risks. It has been shown to help relieve acne, especially when used together with an antibiotic. If taken during pregnancy, it may cause genital problems in the male fetus and, for that reason, should not be used in someone pregnant or planning pregnancy. It is a potassium-sparing diuretic drug, so people taking this medication should take additional potassium supplementation. Hormonal therapy is not used in males as the doses needed to suppress the acne would usually cause feminization problems such as gynecomastia and possible sexual dysfunction.
Oral corticosteroids (Prednisone, Solu-Medrol): Acne may be caused by systemic steroid use, but "steroid acne" is usually characterized by an acute eruption of tiny papules and pustules over the chest and back. Oral steroids may play a role in the treatment of cystic acne, not on their own, but as an adjunct to other antibiotic or isotretinoin therapy to try to suppress scarring inflammation in the skin as fast as possible. This may be especially important with the initiation of isotretinoin therapy, and many providers will start low-dose systemic steroids at the start of isotretinoin therapy in order to block the anticipated flare in disease that retinoids may trigger.
Narrowband UVB ultraviolet light phototherapy and photodynamic therapy are two physical methods that have been used in cystic acne. Because of limits of skin penetration, this may not work as well with large deep cysts but may be useful in addition to ongoing antibiotic therapy. While there are concerns about long-term sun damage in patients who try to manage their conditions such as acne, psoriasis, or eczema with natural sunlight, many patients may show improvement with careful sun exposures. Special care must be taken if a patient is on a sun-sensitizing antibiotic such as a tetracycline product as they may become prone to severe sunburn.
Patients with cystic acne who do not respond to the therapies above will need to consider isotretinoin (Amnesteem, Claravis, Absorica, Isotroin, Epuris), known most commonly as Accutane, although technically there is nothing branded "Accutane" still marketed in the U.S. This should not be considered an absolutely last resort, after everything else has been tried and failed. That being said, because of the side effects and the inconvenience of the prescribing regulations, it is prudent to see if the acne will respond to at least a reasonable try of other therapy before moving to isotretinoin. Universal side effects of isotretinoin include dry lips, dry eyes, and dry nose. Lab monitoring for elevated triglycerides and liver function tests is recommended during the course of therapy. Depression is an uncommon side effect but one of the more serious. Treatment duration may be based on total dose per kilogram or on a planned 20 weeks at 1 mg/kg/day. Isotretinoin should not be used at the same time as tetracycline products. Other antibiotics and/or oral steroids may be used to manage acne flares early in the treatment course.
All patients receiving isotretinoin in the United States must be enrolled in the iPledge program to receive their medication. The physician and dispensing pharmacy must likewise be enrolled in the program. There are different requirements for males and fertile women. All must be seen and cleared on the program monthly. Refillable prescriptions are prohibited. Potentially fertile women must have a negative pregnancy test a month before starting the medication and monthly tests throughout the treatment (and a final post treatment pregnancy test is recommended). If used during pregnancy, isotretinoin can cause serious birth defects.