Severe Acne Treatment Options

Updated September 03, 2013.

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See’s Medical Review Board.

Acne of any type can be upsetting, but severe acne is particularly distressing. Severe acne (sometimes called cystic acne) is inflamed, often painful, and can happen on both the face and the body. It’s particularly important to start treatment soon, because more serious forms of acne can often cause scarring.

Another annoyance: this type of acne can be tough to treat. But, with the right medications and some perseverance, you really can see a huge improvement in your acne.

The first thing to do is get rid of those over-the-counter acne products. They just won’t work for severe acne. Save yourself a bunch of frustration, and don’t waste your time on them.

Severe acne must treated by a medical professional. (If you’re not sure if you’re acne falls into the severe category, you might want to check out this article: What Is Severe Acne?)

You’ll need prescription medications to really get your severe acne under control. This means a trip to the dermatologist. It may seem like an added expense, and a pain in the tail, but once you start seeing actual improvement you’ll be so glad you took the time.

Prescription Topicals

The first line of defense against acne will most likely be a topical medication. You might even be prescribed more than one. There are plenty of options, and each group of medications works in a different way.

Topical retinoids
These are a mainstay of acne treatment. Topical retinoids help keep pores unclogged, so they’re good at treating blackheads and inflamed breakouts. They have other benefits, too. Topical retinoids can make large pores appear smaller, and are also used as anti-aging treatments.

Topical antibiotics
Antibiotics kill bacteria. Acne is, in part, caused by bacteria. So, antibiotics are often prescribed to help get acne under control. Topical antibiotics are applied to the skin, rather than taken by mouth. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is becoming a problem, so there is some worry that these aren’t as effective as they used to be.

Combination medications
Acne improves more quickly when it’s attacked on several fronts. To accomplish this, dermatologists have long prescribed multiple medications. Some newer acne treatments take this idea one step further by blending two acne-fighting ingredients into one medication (like benzoyl peroxide and adapalene, or tretinoin and clindamycin). The main benefit of these treatments is they’re easy to use – just one application and you’re done! The drawback is that combination treatments can be pricier than other medications.

Oral Medications

It’s very likely that your dermatologist will prescribe an oral medication to help get your acne under control. Of course, we’re all familiar with the old acne medication Accutane (isotretinoin), but there are many more options.

Oral antibiotics
Just like topical antibiotics, oral antibiotics reduce the amount of acne-causing bacteria on the skin. Again, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a growing problem, so it’s especially important that you use your oral antibiotics exactly as directed.

Spironolactone is only prescribed for adult women with acne. This medication helps to calm those hormones that cause acne to develop. It’s not appropriate for every woman, but it can be a useful treatment in certain cases. This is one medication that needs to be used long term to be effective, though.

And, of course, there is isotretinoin (better known by the brand name Accutane). This is a powerful medication that isn’t the perfect choice for every person. But in the right cases, isotretinoin can clear up acne that hasn’t responded to anything else. Isotretinoin is only prescribed for short periods of time, and it generally wipes out acne for good.

So, don’t give up! Even if you’ve tried to clear your acne before without much success, don’t give up on treatment yet. You might need a new medication, a renewed commitment to following through with your treatment plan, or even a new dermatologist. But there is no reason to continue to suffer with severe acne. Keep trying!

Read More:

Understanding Cystic Acne

My Prescription Acne Treatments Aren’t Working!