Severe Acne: A Breakdown of Types, Treatments, and MoreSevere Acne: A Breakdown of Types, Treatments, and More

Severe acne is more than just an inconvenience – it’s stubborn, requires a dermatologist’s care, and can be extremely painful, leaving physical and emotional scars in its wake. Those who experience more severe types of acne (from cystic bumps to more serious immune responses) understand just how harrowing the process of identifying and treating these skin conditions can be. TLDR; It’s more complicated than popping on a hydrocolloid patch and changing your pillowcase.

To get a better understanding of severe acne types, we tapped board-certified dermatologist Anthony Rossi , MD – a leading expert on sensitive skin at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center – to give us a rundown on the main players, what causes them, and most effective ways to treat them. But first, what is considered severe acne?

“Severe types have larger, inflamed cystic nodules that can be painful and result in pitted acne scars, as well as hyperpigmentation and dermal skin atrophy,” Dr. Rossi tells POPSUGAR. It’s also extremely common – in fact, it’s the most common skin condition among teens, with up to 30 out of 100 teens experiencing moderate to severe forms of acne. And while there are varying types of severe acne and ways to treat them (more on that below), there are two main commandments according to Dr. Rossi: “Do see a board-certified dermatologist and don’t pick, pop, or squeeze.”

Severe Acne Type: Nodulocystic Acne

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What it is: “This is a severe form of inflammatory acne and causes nodules and cysts that can be painful and lead to scarring,” says Dr. Rossi. They’re deeper, larger, and very uncomfortable. This can carry consequences beyond the physical as well. “It can cause decreased self-esteem and physical dissatisfaction, potentially causing people to become more withdrawn from social engagements.”

What causes it: If skin care had a villain’s origin story, it might go something like this: Excess oil and/or dead skin cells block a pore, forming a comedone. Bacteria enters the chat and the comedone turns to the dark side – becoming a very large, inflamed nodule. Sounds scary, we know, but why does this happen? As it turns out, nodulocystic acne is typically the by-product of genetics, hormonal fluctuations (especially for those experiencing periods), and inflammation-causing bacteria.

How to treat it: If you suspect that your breakout is nodulocystic acne, you’ll want to skip the over-the-counter products and make an appointment with a derm. “It usually requires oral retinoids such as isotretinoin to get under control, while steroid injections can help bring down individual lesions,” says Dr. Rossi, adding that photodynamic therapy can be an option for those with sensitivity to isotretinoin.

Severe Acne Type: Acne Conglobata

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What it is: “This is part of a group of skin disorders called the follicular occlusion tetrad,” says Dr. Rossi, meaning acne conglobata has friends in low places – with a few other unwelcome skin conditions that form in similar ways. Acne conglobata (a severe type of nodulocystic acne) begins with blocked hair follicles that form clusters of comedones which develop into pus-filled cysts. These nodule cysts then create a network of sores that can appear almost everywhere on the body: face, chest, back, shoulders and arms, thighs, and butt. The nodules are red and tender to the touch.

What causes it: According to Dr. Rossi, acne conglobata can be caused by “hormones, genetic predisposition, and an inflammatory response to a bacteria known as propionibacterium acnes.” In layman’s terms, it often crops up the same way common acne (a.k.a. acne vulgaris) does. However, there are more possible causes, albeit rare. “The ingestion of thyroid medication and exposure to halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons – a type of environmental pollutants – may also be implicated in acne conglobata, as well as androgen hormones and anabolic steroids,” says Dr. Rossi.

How to treat it: Because acne conglobata is known to result in scarring, you’ll want to get in touch with a dermatologist to get a treatment plan going ASAP. Luckily, the treatment is pretty straightforward. Dr. Rossi advises following a prescription of isotretinoin and systemic steroids.

Severe Acne Type: Acne Fulminans

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What it is: Quick-onset, severe acne that results in open sores on the face, chest, or back. Acne fulminans is “a rare systemic disorder characterized by a presentation of nodules and cysts,” says Dr. Rossi. Though it appears like acne conglobata at first glance, acne fulminans can actually affect other organ systems as well, potentially resulting in anemia, an enlarged spleen, liver abnormalities, joint pains, and/or fevers. “SAPHO syndrome (Synovitis, Acne, Pustulosis, Hyperostosis, and Osteitis) may also be a serious complication of acne fulminans,” Dr. Rossi adds, which is a rare chronic inflammatory disorder.

How to treat it: It’s important to seek dermatologist treatment immediately since it can take several months and medications to get under control. “Acne fulminans requires treatment with systemic corticosteroids as well as anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and oral isotretinoin,” says Dr. Rossi.

Severe Acne Type: Gram Negative Folliculitis

What it is: “Gram negative folliculitis is a bacterial infection of the hair follicle that looks and mimics acne, but the papules and pustules are centered around the hair follicle,” Dr. Rossi says, explaining that “gram negative” in the name refers to a type of bacteria. It resembles an acne-like rash of pustules (rather than papules or comedones) and occasionally penetrates the skin on a deeper level to form lesions similar to cysts.

What causes it: As mentioned above, gram negative folliculitis is specifically caused by a family of bacteria which includes Pseudomonas, E. coli, klebsiella, and proteus. Oftentimes, patients with this infection will have tried traditional acne treatments (like acne-specific antibiotics) without success, in which case a bacterial test is the best route.

How to treat it: “If suspected, the dermatologist can do a bacterial culture to detect the bacteria as well as see what antibiotics it is susceptible or resistant to,” says Dr. Rossi. Once gram negative folliculitis is confirmed, it “can be treated with topical antibiotics and antibacterial washes, as well as oral antibiotics for more severe or widespread cases.”

Severe acne is more than just an inconvenience – it’s stubborn, requires a dermatologist’s care, and can be extremely painful, leaving physical and emotional scars in its wake. Those who experience more severe types of acne (from cystic bumps to more serious immune responses) understand just how harrowing the process of identifying and treating these skin conditions can be. TLDR; It’s more complicated than popping on a hydrocolloid patch and changing your pillowcase.

To get a better understanding of severe acne types, we tapped board-certified dermatologist Anthony Rossi , MD – a leading expert on sensitive skin at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center – to give us a rundown on the main players, what causes them, and most effective ways to treat them. But first, what is considered severe acne?

“Severe types have larger, inflamed cystic nodules that can be painful and result in pitted acne scars, as well as hyperpigmentation and dermal skin atrophy,” Dr. Rossi tells POPSUGAR. It’s also extremely common – in fact, it’s the most common skin condition among teens, with up to 30 out of 100 teens experiencing moderate to severe forms of acne. And while there are varying types of severe acne and ways to treat them (more on that below), there are two main commandments according to Dr. Rossi: “Do see a board-certified dermatologist and don’t pick, pop, or squeeze.”

Severe Acne Type: Nodulocystic Acne

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Mon 🕊 (@moniqueschreiber)

What it is: “This is a severe form of inflammatory acne and causes nodules and cysts that can be painful and lead to scarring,” says Dr. Rossi. They’re deeper, larger, and very uncomfortable. This can carry consequences beyond the physical as well. “It can cause decreased self-esteem and physical dissatisfaction, potentially causing people to become more withdrawn from social engagements.”

What causes it: If skin care had a villain’s origin story, it might go something like this: Excess oil and/or dead skin cells block a pore, forming a comedone. Bacteria enters the chat and the comedone turns to the dark side – becoming a very large, inflamed nodule. Sounds scary, we know, but why does this happen? As it turns out, nodulocystic acne is typically the by-product of genetics, hormonal fluctuations (especially for those experiencing periods), and inflammation-causing bacteria.

How to treat it: If you suspect that your breakout is nodulocystic acne, you’ll want to skip the over-the-counter products and make an appointment with a derm. “It usually requires oral retinoids such as isotretinoin to get under control, while steroid injections can help bring down individual lesions,” says Dr. Rossi, adding that photodynamic therapy can be an option for those with sensitivity to isotretinoin.

Severe Acne Type: Acne Conglobata

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Love What Matters: Good News (@lovewhatmatters)

What it is: “This is part of a group of skin disorders called the follicular occlusion tetrad,” says Dr. Rossi, meaning acne conglobata has friends in low places – with a few other unwelcome skin conditions that form in similar ways. Acne conglobata (a severe type of nodulocystic acne) begins with blocked hair follicles that form clusters of comedones which develop into pus-filled cysts. These nodule cysts then create a network of sores that can appear almost everywhere on the body: face, chest, back, shoulders and arms, thighs, and butt. The nodules are red and tender to the touch.

What causes it: According to Dr. Rossi, acne conglobata can be caused by “hormones, genetic predisposition, and an inflammatory response to a bacteria known as propionibacterium acnes.” In layman’s terms, it often crops up the same way common acne (a.k.a. acne vulgaris) does. However, there are more possible causes, albeit rare. “The ingestion of thyroid medication and exposure to halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons – a type of environmental pollutants – may also be implicated in acne conglobata, as well as androgen hormones and anabolic steroids,” says Dr. Rossi.

How to treat it: Because acne conglobata is known to result in scarring, you’ll want to get in touch with a dermatologist to get a treatment plan going ASAP. Luckily, the treatment is pretty straightforward. Dr. Rossi advises following a prescription of isotretinoin and systemic steroids.

Severe Acne Type: Acne Fulminans

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Dra. Luciana Leão (@dralucianaleaodermatologista)

What it is: Quick-onset, severe acne that results in open sores on the face, chest, or back. Acne fulminans is “a rare systemic disorder characterized by a presentation of nodules and cysts,” says Dr. Rossi. Though it appears like acne conglobata at first glance, acne fulminans can actually affect other organ systems as well, potentially resulting in anemia, an enlarged spleen, liver abnormalities, joint pains, and/or fevers. “SAPHO syndrome (Synovitis, Acne, Pustulosis, Hyperostosis, and Osteitis) may also be a serious complication of acne fulminans,” Dr. Rossi adds, which is a rare chronic inflammatory disorder.

How to treat it: It’s important to seek dermatologist treatment immediately since it can take several months and medications to get under control. “Acne fulminans requires treatment with systemic corticosteroids as well as anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and oral isotretinoin,” says Dr. Rossi.

Severe Acne Type: Gram Negative Folliculitis

What it is: “Gram negative folliculitis is a bacterial infection of the hair follicle that looks and mimics acne, but the papules and pustules are centered around the hair follicle,” Dr. Rossi says, explaining that “gram negative” in the name refers to a type of bacteria. It resembles an acne-like rash of pustules (rather than papules or comedones) and occasionally penetrates the skin on a deeper level to form lesions similar to cysts.

What causes it: As mentioned above, gram negative folliculitis is specifically caused by a family of bacteria which includes Pseudomonas, E. coli, klebsiella, and proteus. Oftentimes, patients with this infection will have tried traditional acne treatments (like acne-specific antibiotics) without success, in which case a bacterial test is the best route.

How to treat it: “If suspected, the dermatologist can do a bacterial culture to detect the bacteria as well as see what antibiotics it is susceptible or resistant to,” says Dr. Rossi. Once gram negative folliculitis is confirmed, it “can be treated with topical antibiotics and antibacterial washes, as well as oral antibiotics for more severe or widespread cases.”

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