Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/7/2021
We’ve all had that moment where we’ve woken up to a blemish or two on our face, applied a spot treatment and crossed our fingers and hoped that it would clear up without a fuss.
Sometimes, they do. But what’s the deal with the ones that stick around and become painful? The ones that ruin a few days of our lives with their red, inflamed, painful existence. We wince just thinking about ‘em.
In this article, we’ll explore why pimples are painful and how to get rid of pimples that hurt.
To understand why pimples become painful, we need to understand how their root condition, acne, works in the first place.
Acne is the result of the pores in your skin becoming blocked by hair, bacteria, dead skin cells and sebum (an oily substance naturally produced by your sebaceous glands). It most commonly appears on the face, forehead, chest, shoulders and upper back.
It’s also the most common skin condition in the United States, affecting about 50 million people annually.
Acne comes in a variety of different forms, including some that can be cleared up with a topical treatment, or dermatological procedure without ever becoming painful. These include whiteheads and blackheads.
Whiteheads: these are bumps on the skin that are closed and plugged with dead skin and oil.
Blackheads: these are hair follicles that are plugged with dead skin and oil, and remain open.
Pustules: pimples that contain pus, have a white head and are surrounded by a red ring are pustules.,
Papules: these small red or pink bumps are inflamed and are known as papules.
Nodules: forming deep in the skin, these solid pimples are large and painful.
Cysts: considered the most severe type of pimple caused by acne, cysts form large, pus-filled bumps that are highly likely to cause scarring.
Pimples hurt due to inflammation, which is your body’s natural response to harmful stimuli, and the mechanism that enables your body to remove whatever is harming it and start the healing process.
When acne-causing bacteria get into the skin, it responds with inflammation, leading to the redness, pain and swelling you may experience as your body works to eliminate the bacteria and heal.
Here’s a small caveat that can get a little confusing.
Emerging research has shown inflammation to be an inherent characteristic of acne, regardless of if you experience pain or not.
Therefore, acne developing to the point of pain is specific to the type of acne you experience, but inflammation is a natural part of the cycle of acne.
An acne diagnosis starts with a visit to your healthcare provider. They’ll aim to discern any underlying causes for your acne, like family history or the pattern of your menstrual cycles.
Additionally, your provider can rank the severity of your breakout, ranging from whiteheads and blackheads being considered mild, to large, painful and inflamed nodules and pustules falling into the category of severe acne.
This information will help you settle on a treatment plan for your acne, which can range from topical treatments to oral medications and skin procedures.
Here are some tips for dealing with painful pimples:
Clean your skin. Use a mild, fragrance-free cleanser to gently cleanse your skin before applying any treatments.
Ice your pimples. Apply ice to the irritated area to reduce pain and swelling, applying ice wrapped in a paper towel or clean cloth for five to ten minutes at a time, two or more times, with ten-minute breaks in between.
Apply benzoyl peroxide. A solution of 2% benzoyl peroxide is effective for helping kill the bacteria that is causing the acne. This treatment is available over-the-counter, but make sure to apply a thin layer, as too much can be irritating to the skin.
Dissolve dead skin cells. A preventative method can be found in salicylic acid to stop pimples from forming by preemptively dissolving the dead skin cells that can cause clogged pores.
Apply a warm compress. A warm compress can be used as soon as a whitehead begins to form. Apply a clean washcloth soaked in hot water (but not so hot you burn yourself) to the affected area for ten to fifteen minutes, three to four times daily until the pimple releases pus and heals.
Hands off. Do not pop, squeeze or pick at your pimples. This can introduce bacteria to the area and result in an increased risk of scarring.
Avoid home remedies. The use of home remedies like applying toothpaste are unproven and can actually make your blemishes worse.
Get a procedure. A cortisone injection can be administered by a board-certified dermatology specialist if the pimple requires urgent care and needs to be cleared up faster.
Although painful pimples are a less than ideal outcome of dealing with acne, there are certainly a range of options for treating them.
Remember, the best way to deal with acne is to prevent it from forming in the first place. So be sure to take proper care of acne-prone skin by using an acne treatment that can help keep your skin clean, balanced, and healthy.
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