Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Acne is a common skin problem that affects people of all ages. While it’s frustrating to deal with any type of acne breakout, dealing with infected, painful acne can be a particularly stressful and unpleasant process.
Infected acne develops when bacteria multiply inside a clogged pore, causing it to become red, swollen and painful.
When acne becomes infected, it can take a significant toll on your skin and increase your risk of dealing with issues such as permanent scarring.
Luckily, even the most severe infected acne breakouts can be treated with the right mix of good skincare habits, over-the-counter products and acne medications.
Below, we’ve explained how and why infected acne develops, as well as nine ways that you can get control of infected acne and stop breakouts from coming back.
Infected acne is exactly what it sounds like — acne that’s become infected due to the growth of bacteria on your skin.
Acne develops when a hair follicle, or pore, becomes clogged with a mix of sebum (a type of oil that’s produced to moisturize and protect your skin) and dead skin cells.
When your pores become clogged, they can develop into small, non-inflammatory acne lesions called comedones. Blackheads and whiteheads are both common forms of comedonal acne.
Infected acne develops when bacteria become trapped inside a clogged pore. As the bacteria multiply, a small, non-inflammatory acne lesion can develop into an inflamed papule, pustule or in some cases, even severe acne such as cystic acne.
Several different types of bacteria can cause infected acne, but one of the most common is the bacteria propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes.
P. acnes is a normal part of your skin flora (the bacteria and other microorganisms that live on your skin).
Although it’s usually harmless, when it’s able to multiply rapidly inside a pore, it can cause your skin to become severely inflamed. \
Our guide to the causes of acne goes into more detail about this process, as well as the steps that you can take to reduce your risk of developing acne breakouts.
Infected acne looks different from the small blackheads and whiteheads that you may normally develop. Infected acne lesions are often:
Red in color, with visible inflammation
Larger and more swollen than other acne lesions
Uncomfortable or painful when touched
Filled with pus or other purulent material
Slower to heal than other acne lesions
Some forms of infected acne, such as nodular acne, form deep beneath the surface of your skin and can grow much larger than most pimples.
Several other skin infections and conditions can produce symptoms that look similar to infected acne. These include:
Folliculitis. This is a common skin condition that affects
the hair follicles, typically due to bacterial infection. It’s usually caused by the Staph bacteria, known clinically as Staphylococcus aureus.
Furuncles. Usually known as boils, these large, pimple-like lesions develop
when a hair follicle and the surrounding tissue becomes infected with bacteria. Like folliculitis, they’re often caused by a Staph bacteria infection.
Papulopustular rosacea. This is a common skin disease that can cause redness of the skin, swelling and acne-like breakouts that affect the face and body.
Since these skin conditions aren’t acne, common treatments for acne may not improve them or clear your skin.
If you’re unsure about a skin rash, bump or condition that looks similar to acne, it’s always best to contact your healthcare provider or a dermatologist.
While infected acne can look severe, it’s almost always treatable with the right over-the-counter acne treatments, prescription medications and good skincare habits.
Below, we’ve shared nine approaches that you can use to treat infected acne and enjoy clearer, blemish-free skin.
Since infected acne is caused by bacteria, one of the most effective ways to treat it and prevent it from developing again is to keep your skin clean.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s important to wash your skin two times a day, as well as after you do anything that causes you to sweat.
An easy way to keep bacterial growth under control is to wash your face just after you wake up, before you go to bed and after your workout.
When you wash your face, apply products gently using your fingers. Avoid using a washcloth or sponge, as this may irritate your skin and make your breakouts worse.
Our step-by-step guide to washing your face goes over the basics of washing your face to limit bacterial growth, all without harming your skin.
You can find countless cleansers, face washes and other products for treating acne online and in your local drug store.
When it comes to infected acne, it’s important to look for active ingredients that inhibit bacterial growth. One such ingredient is benzoyl peroxide, which is usually available as a liquid cleanser, lotion, cream and gel for treating acne.
Benzoyl peroxide works by killing P. acnes bacteria on your skin and inside your pores. It also has mild sebostatic and keratolytic effects, meaning it helps to control sebum production and prevent excess dead cells from building up on your skin.
Used regularly, benzoyl peroxide can help to get rid of mild acne to moderate infected acne and clear your skin over the course of a few weeks.
When using benzoyl peroxide, there are a few things to be aware of. First, it’s important to only apply a thin layer of benzoyl peroxide, as large amounts may cause your skin to become overly dry and irritated.
Second, be careful when applying benzoyl peroxide near your eyes, hair or clothing, as it’s also a mild bleach.
Our guide to benzoyl peroxide for acne goes into more detail about how you can apply benzoyl peroxide to control breakouts and get rid of inflamed acne.
As tempting as it might feel, popping your pimples isn’t a good idea, especially if they’re already infected.
When you squeeze or pop pimples yourself, you risk pushing the contents deeper into your skin and making your acne worse.
Popping pimples can also transfer bacteria from your hands onto your face, potentially worsening infections and inflammation.
All of these issues lead to longer, more severe acne breakouts and a higher risk of dealing with unpleasant, difficult-to-treat acne scars.
If your pimples feel painful or uncomfortable, instead of popping them, try using ice to gain more control over pain and swelling.
To make a swollen or painful acne lesion more tolerable, place an ice cube inside a paper towel, wrap it up and gently apply it to the acne lesion.
Hold it there for five to 10 minutes, then take a 10-minute break, then repeat the process two more times.
After applying ice a few times, you should notice the acne lesion gradually become less swollen and painful.
To speed up recovery, try applying an acne spot treatment to the affected skin after you’ve controlled the inflammation with ice.
If you have pustules and other inflamed acne lesions, you can use a warm compress to relieve discomfort and speed up healing.
You can make a warm compress by soaking a small washcloth in warm water. To relieve acne, apply it directly to the affected skin.
Try to hold the warm compress against your skin for 10 to 15 minutes to remove pus from the acne and reduce inflammation.
This can help to relieve discomfort, promote healing and cut down the temptation to scratch or pop your pimples.
Infected acne develops when bacteria multiply inside a pore that’s clogged due to a buildup of sebum and dead skin cells.
Behind the scenes, several factors are involved in this process, including your genetics, use of some types of medication and fluctuations in your levels of certain hormones.
When certain hormones are produced, they can stimulate your sebaceous glands (small glands located inside your skin) to produce more sebum, resulting in hormonal acne.
If your infected acne breakouts are caused by hormonal fluctuations, using a combination birth control pill may help to stop them.
Birth control helps to prevent acne by regulating your production of certain hormones, referred to as androgens. Currently, the FDA has approved three birth control pills — Yaz®, Estrostep® and Ortho Tri-Cyclen® — as treatments for acne in women.
We offer birth control pills online, including generic versions of several popular birth control pills approved to treat acne breakouts.
You can learn more about treating acne breakouts with birth control in our detailed guide to birth control and acne.
While over-the-counter medications like benzoyl peroxide are often powerful enough to get rid of mild infected acne, more severe acne may require the use of prescription treatments.
If you have infected acne, your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical antibiotic to prevent acne-causing bacteria from growing on your skin.
One of the most common topical antibiotics for acne is clindamycin, which works by decreasing swelling and stopping down the growth of acne-causing bacteria.
You can purchase clindamycin as a gel, foam and liquid solution. It’s one of several ingredients in our Prescription Acne Cream, which uses a customized blend of active ingredients to get rid of stubborn acne breakouts and prevent them from coming back.
Most of the time, mild to moderate acne can be successfully treated with a combination of acne treatments available over the counter and topical prescription medications.
However, if you have severe, persistent or deep infected acne breakouts, you may need to use oral medication to get it under control.
Dermatologists usually prescribe two types of oral medication to control acne — oral antibiotics and oral retinoids, such as isotretinoin.
Oral antibiotics work systemically to prevent acne-causing bacteria from growing. Popular oral antibiotics for treating infected acne include doxycycline, minocycline, amoxicillin, erythromycin and others.
Isotretinoin, on the other hand, works by reducing your skin’s sebum production and preventing dead skin cells from building up inside your pores.
These medications are very effective at treating even the most severe acne, but they can cause side effects and shouldn’t be used if you’re pregnant, nursing or plan to become pregnant in the near future.
To keep yourself safe, you’ll need to check in with your healthcare provider regularly throughout treatment and use multiple forms of birth control.
Finally, if your acne doesn’t seem to improve with medication and self-care, it’s always best to meet with a dermatologist.
As specialists in all things skincare, dermatologists use several techniques to treat acne that’s infected and severe.
One of these techniques is acne drainage, which involves physically draining cysts or nodules that are infected and inflamed.
Dermatologists also treat infected acne with corticosteroids. These medications are injected into painful cysts or nodules to ease swelling, reduce pain and improve healing.
Your dermatologist may also prescribe medication for you to use to clear up acne and prevent it from coming back.
If you’re prescribed acne medication, make sure that you continue using it for the entire treatment period, even if your acne clears up early.
Infected acne is a painful, unpleasant skin condition that affects both your appearance and your self-confidence.
If you have mild or moderate infected acne, acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide or topical antibiotics may help to clear your skin and stop breakouts from coming back.
For severe or persistent infected acne, it’s best to consult a dermatologist to find out more about the best options for you.
Tired of dealing with acne? Our guide to preventing acne breakouts shares 10 easy yet effective tips that you can use to reduce your risk of experiencing breakouts throughout the year.