What is cystic acne?

There are multiple treatments available for people who have cystic acne. Medications and several home remedies may help you treat this condition.
There are multiple treatments available for people who have cystic acne. Medications and several home remedies may help you treat this condition.

Whether you get occasional whiteheads or persistent pimples, acne can be painful and frustrating. Luckily, most acne breakouts will clear up on their own. Cystic acne is different. 

Cystic acne forms when bacteria causes inflammation to the inner layers of your skin. It creates cysts of fluid deep under the surface of your skin. These patches can look red and become inflamed and painful, causing discomfort and taking a toll on your self-confidence. However, it is possible to treat cystic acne

Cystic acne is the most severe type of acne. Cystic acne gets its name from the large red bumps that appear on the skin. It usually shows up on the face, back, chest, or even the buttocks. 

These bumps are not “poppable” like regular pimples. That’s because the pus in cystic acne is trapped layers underneath the surface of your skin. 

The main causes of cystic acne are: 


 Genetic traits like acne can be passed down within a family. Although acne is often associated with the hormonal changes of teenagers, you can develop cystic acne well into adulthood. 

Diet and lifestyle 

It’s not yet known if certain foods trigger a cystic acne outbreak. Some foods that are commonly associated with a higher rate of outbreaks are processed sugar and dairy. 

Changes in hormones

Your hormones change as you get older. You could also be taking a new product that contains hormones. Each person is different and will have a different reaction to changing or fluctuating hormones.  

Anyone can develop cystic acne, but teenagers or people whose hormones are changing are the most likely to develop this skin condition. If you have a family history of cystic acne, there is a higher chance you will develop it at some point in your life.

Cystic acne can take a toll on your self image. People who have serious acne are more likely to have low self esteem and confidence. They may experience depression or withdraw from social activities. 

Diagnosis for cystic acne

Acne is the most common skin disease in the U.S. More than 80% of the population will develop it at some point. Doctors diagnose cystic acne by examining the skin. They will look for blackheads and whiteheads to differentiate between acne and other skin conditions. Large, red bumps on the skin are characteristics of cystic acne.

The farther along your cystic acne develops, the more likely it is you’ll develop scarring on your face. You should visit the dermatologist if you suspect you have cystic acne. Early treatment can be crucial to your skin’s recovery.

Treatments for cystic acne

There are multiple treatments available for people who have cystic acne. Talk to your dermatologist to figure out what’s causing the acne and decide which solution is right for you. 

  • Medications

Several prescriptions are available for treating cystic acne, including:

  • Isotretinoin (Accutane): Isotretinoin is an oral medication. It’s proven to be one of the most effective cystic acne treatments. A dermatologist usually oversees the course of this medication. A treatment course can last 16-20 weeks. 
  • Hormonal birth control: For people who menstruate, birth control can be an effective cystic acne treatment. It works by balancing your hormones, but it may take up to six months to start seeing results.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are often used as a short-term solution to treat inflammation caused by cystic acne. 
  • Retinoid creams: Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A. Applying a retinoid cream to your skin helps speed up the skin’s cell turnover. Skin that regenerates quickly also heals quickly. 

Home remedies

There are things you can do at home to help your cystic acne treatment be effective, including: 

  • Don’t over-wash your face. Your skin produces natural oils that keep it moisturized. If you constantly wash away those oils, the skin will overproduce oil to keep from drying out.
  • Never pop the cysts. This can cause long term effects like scarring and even delay healing. 
  • Avoid touching the affected skin. The more your skin is left alone between treatments, the better. 
  • Avoid using heavy makeup. Heavy makeup can clog your pores and trap dirt in the skin. Wearing light or water-based makeup will allow your skin to breathe.

Alternative therapies

  • Cyst drainage: This is when the doctor makes a small incision and drains the cyst. You should not attempt to do this at home.  
  • Corticosteroids: The dermatologist may recommend corticosteroid injections. They are injected directly into the cysts by the doctor. 


Acne is the result of an allergy. See Answer

Possible side effects of treatments

Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane, is one of the most effective oral medications for cystic acne. However, if a patient becomes pregnant while taking isotretinoin, there can be severe developmental problems or deformities with the fetus. It can also cause miscarriage or stillbirth

Women are usually required to be on two forms of birth control while taking isotretinoin. They are also tested for pregnancy each time they receive another dose. Other side effects of isotretinoin include:

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Medically Reviewed on 1/27/2021
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American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Can the Right Diet Get Rid of Acne?”

American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Isotretinoin: The Truth About Side Effects.”

American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Stubborn Acne? Hormonal Therapy May Help.”

American Academy of Dermatology Association: “What can clear severe acne?”

Merck Manual: “Acne Vulgaris.”

Postgraduate Medical Journal: “Acne: more than skin deep.”

Cutaneous Medicine for the Practitioner: “A combined analysis of 2 randomized clinical studies of tretinoin gel 0.05% for the treatment of acne.”

Penn Medicine: “What Is Acne?”