Infected pimples: What you should know

A bacterial infection usually causes infected pimples. They may need to be treated differently than normal pimples or acne.

When pores on the skin become clogged with too much oil (sebum), dead skin cells or bacteria, pimples develop. During puberty, acne appears to occur more frequently when more sebum is usually formed by the sebaceous glands but can grow at any time.

When it pops, a pimple is more likely to become infected. Infected pimples often happen when there is cystic acne in a person.

A staph bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) causes skin infections such as boils and impetigo and can be more difficult to treat.

To find out more about causes, signs, and interventions, read on.

Causes

Popping a pimple may cause it to become infected.
Popping a pimple may cause it to become infected.

Naturally, a bacterium known as Propionibacterium acnes lives on the skin. It is usually harmless, but it may begin to replicate and cause an immune response when a sebaceous gland becomes blocked, causing the pimple to become inflamed and grow larger.

An infection can be caused by popping pimples because bacteria can penetrate the wound or the pustule can rupture within the skin.

The most extreme type of acne, where pimples become big and pus-filled, is cystic acne. Scarring is more likely to be caused by this type of acne.

A staph bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) causes skin infections such as boils and impetigo and can be more difficult to treat.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Infected pimples can run deep into the skin, unlike a normal pimple, and produce a bigger, more painful bump.

The following symptoms can result in infected pimples:

  • more obvious than regular pimples
  • larger and redder in color due to inflammation
  • take longer to heal than a regular pimple
  • may be painful or sensitive to touch
  • may be filled with pus

A pimple that is infected by S. aureus may be a boil. Boils are infectious, and while the infections are typically mild, the following symptoms can be encountered by a person:

  • red, painful lumps, typically on the neck, face, or buttocks
  • a high temperature
  • fatigue
  • generally feeling unwell

Impetigo, which is a highly contagious skin infection, can also be caused by staph infections. Blisters or sores that are small, itchy or painful usually occur first on the hands or face, but can spread to other parts of the body. Impetigo usually clears up within 10 days with medication. In children, it is common.

Rosacea can cause infected pimples as well. Rosacea is a long-term disease that typically triggers facial pimples and redness, often with a feeling of burning or stinging.

For diagnosis, anyone who is not sure what the contaminated bump is on their skin should see a doctor or a dermatologist (skin doctor).

  • Rosacea Image credit: RicHard-59, 2014
  • Cutaneous abscess caused by Staphylococcus aureus Image credit: Gregory Moran, M.D
  • Cystic acne Image credit: James Heilman, MD, 2010

Treatment

Treating an infected pimple requires killing the infection-causing bacteria. Infected pimples may not be treated with medications to treat normal pimples, but they can help minimize the spread to other areas.

A doctor can prescribe antibiotics when an infection is serious, which can help reduce bacteria and inflammation. Nevertheless, if a person takes them several times, they can be less successful. Available as creams or oral tablets are antibiotics.

An individual should use the following in order to treat an infected pimple at home:

  • A warm compress. Gently apply a warm compress to the infected pimple twice a day. This can bring the pus, sebum, or debris closer to the surface of the skin. Avoid pressing down on the pimple, as this can push its contents deeper into the skin.
  • Apply benzoyl peroxide. This is an over-the-counter (OTC) cream that kills bacteria.
  • Keep the area clean. Avoid touching the pimple, and clean it regularly to stop the infection from spreading and creating more infected pimples. This is especially important for people who have a staph infection.

Other tips that can help to treat and prevent infected pimples include:

  • avoiding tight clothing, such as gym clothes, near the pimple
  • changing bed sheets and clothes regularly
  • avoiding scratching or popping pimples as this can increase the risk of further infection
  • avoiding using makeup around the affected area

More invasive procedures may be required if the infection does not go away after a few weeks or if the symptoms are very serious. Options could include laser surgery or light treatment to destroy the infection-causing bacteria.

When to see a doctor

A doctor and his patient
A person should consult their doctor or dermatologist if an infected pimple does not heal after several weeks.

Using OTC medicine and home remedies, infected pimples may sometimes be treated, but serious infections can require antibiotics. It can take several weeks for the infection to disappear.

Anyone suffering from inflammation, infection, or near-eye pimples should see a doctor. If their symptoms do not improve after a couple of weeks or get worse, a person should also see a doctor.

If a person has a pimple that is extremely big and painful, it may be an infection-induced boil or skin abscess. They can contact their doctor to determine the most suitable treatment if a person believes that this is the cause.

Takeaway

At some time or another, most people may have pimples, but it is important not to pop them or expose them to bacteria, or they may get infected. Without the need for medical attention, an infected pimple will normally clear up within a few weeks.

However in extreme cases, more invasive procedures may be required to kill the infection-causing bacteria. If a more severe condition is suspected, it is necessary to see a doctor, as infected pimples may cause permanent scarring or may be contagious.

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