Facing up to acne Pimples: There's no longer any reason to suffer, dermatologists say.

November 01, 1998|By Rick Ansorge | Rick Ansorge,COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE

In ancient times, bad skin was considered such a curse that the complexion- challenged were shunned or stoned.

Times haven't changed all that much.

As beauty standards narrow, a faceful of acne can present a serious barrier to social and occupational success. A British study shows that people with acne are nearly twice as likely as those with clear skin to be unemployed.

"There's a great deal more importance placed on appearance than there used to be," says Dr. Roger Ceilley, past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. "We've promoted a very unreal image that people can't live up to."

As social pressures have intensified, however, so have efforts to develop effective treatments. Now that some prescription treatments are up to 100 percent effective, dermatologists say, there's no longer any need to suffer from acne.

Still, although an overwhelming majority of teens have acne, a recent study by the American Academy of Dermatology shows that only 7 percent of them have consulted a dermatologist.

When Ceilley began practicing dermatology in the early 1970s, his mostly teen-age patients were relatively unself-conscious about their acne. Not anymore. Today, even a mild case of acne is enough to trigger a full-blown depression.

"Sometimes it's out of proportion," Ceilley says. "But this is an age when children are already insecure about their self-image and how they fit in."

Teens with more severe acne worry if they'll ever fit in.

"They're feeling more traumatized by social and peer pressure," he says. "If people call them 'pizza face,' they can develop some real problems if they don't get treated."

Although dozens of over-the-counter and prescription preparations are available, the gold standard for treatment of severe acne is Accutane, an oral medication introduced in 1981. A powerful vitamin A derivative, Accutane prevents pimples from forming by shrinking the skin's oil-producing sebaceous glands.

Treatment usually lasts four to six months. Males typically require only one course of therapy. Since menstrual cycles can complicate acne treatment, females often require two or three courses.

In recent months, Accutane, however, has come under fire from critics who worry that it might cause psychological problems. Since 1989, the FDA has fielded 12 reports of suicides among people taking Accutane. Other patients have complained of depression.

To date, about 8 million people worldwide - including 2 million Americans - have been treated with Accutane.

Although researchers have yet to establish a relationship between Accutane and psychological problems, prescriptions must now carry the warning: "Accutane may cause depression, psychosis and rarely, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicide. Discontinuation of Accutane therapy may be insufficient; further evaluation may be necessary."

While dermatologists still insist the drug is safe and effective, they acknowledge that patients need to be monitored more carefully for signs of psychological distress. Patients whose complexions deteriorate after Accutane is discontinued require additional attention.

Since Accutane also produces side effects ranging from chapped lips to birth defects if taken by a pregnant woman, it isn't for everyone. Most dermatologists prefer to start with less .. powerful, over-the-counter and prescription treatments such as drying lotions, topical Retin A and oral antibiotics.

"We look at the treatment of acne as steps on a ladder," says Larry Cole, a dermatologist in Colorado Springs, Colo.

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A ZIT

Although your complexion may seem clear, that doesn't mean a zit isn't forming in your face, chest or back.

The trouble starts with your sebaceous glands, which cling to hair follicles like little sponges. Around puberty, the glands begin squeezing out an oil called sebum. Normally, sebum flows up the hair follicle to the skin's surface and is washed away.

Sometimes, however, the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, which mixes with dead skin cells, pigment and bacteria to form an embryonic zit called a microcomedo. Like the plug of a volcano, it blocks the flow of sebum, which creates pressure.

BIRTH

Over several weeks, it grows into a baby zit. Typically just before a date, job interview or other important event, it makes its arrival into the world as a whitehead or blackhead.

A whitehead, or closed comedo, is a small bump. A blackhead, or open comedo, is just a pencil prick. Its dark color is caused by oxidized melanin pigment, not dirt.

TEENHOOD

Pressure builds inside this plugged system until material leaks or bursts into surrounding tissue, causing redness and swelling. You now have an adolescent zit or pimple.

ALL GROWN UP

The body responds by dispatching white blood cells to the scene - the cells produce pus. You now have a fully mature zit or pustule.

In the worst cases, the pustule will live to a ripe old age. It will become so deeply embedded that you develop chronic cystic or nodular acne.

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