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What causes pustule? 6 possible conditions

What Are Pustules?

Pustules are small bumps on the skin that fill with fluid or pus. These bumps can form on any part of the body, but they are most common on the back, neck, chest, and face.

Although these bumps are like pimples, they can grow quite big. Pustules are treated with medication or surgery.

What Causes Pustules to Form?

Pustules often form after an insect bites you. Pustules may also form if your skin is inflamed due to an allergic reaction to food, environmental allergens, or poisonous insect bites.

However, the most common cause of pustules is acne. Acne, also known as pimples, causes inflamed patches of skin that contain pus or oil. Acne develops when the pores of your skin become clogged. Bacteria on the surface of the skin and the buildup of dead cells can also lead to acne.

Pustules caused by acne can become hard and painful. When this occurs, the pustule becomes a cyst. This condition is known as cystic acne.

What Does a Postule Look Like?

Pustules are easily identifiable. They appear as small bumps on the surface of your skin. The bumps are usually white, or red with white in the center. The bump may be painful to the touch and the skin around the bump may be red and inflamed.

Common locations for pustules are:

  • shoulders
  • chest
  • back
  • face
  • neck
  • areas of hair growth, such as the underarms, pubic area, or hairline

When Do Pustules Need Medical Attention?

Pustules that suddenly erupt all over the face or in patches on other parts of the body may be the sign of a bacterial infection. Contact your doctor if you have a sudden outbreak of pustules.

If your pustules are painful or leaking fluid, you should visit a doctor to have them checked out. These may be signs of a serious skin infection.

If you experience any of the following symptoms along with the pustules, you should seek medical attention immediately:

  • fever
  • warm skin in the area of pustules
  • clammy skin
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • pain in the area containing the pustules
  • large pustules that are extremely painful

How Are Pustules Treated?

Small pustules may simply go away naturally without treatment. You may use over-the-counter acne medications, soaps, creams, or lotions on small acne pustules on your back, arms, shoulders, chest, neck, and face. However, do not use these medications on your pubic area.

The best topical medications for treating pustules contain peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur. However, be careful not to use products that contain sulfur if you have a sulfur allergy.

Over-the-counter products work to treat the pustules by drying the top layer of skin, and absorbing excess surface oils. Some are strong and may cause your skin to become extremely dry and peel.

If you have sensitive skin, look for products specially made for your skin type that will not worsen your condition.

Do not squeeze, pick, or pinch your pustules. This can cause damage to your skin or worsen an infection.

Avoid using oil-based products—such as lotions or petroleum jelly—in the areas affected by pustules. These can worsen the condition or block your pores, causing more pustules to grow.

Prescription medications may be useful in treating acne pustules, especially those caused by bacterial infections. Medications that are often prescribed to help treat acne pustules are:

  • oral antibiotics, such as doxycycline and amoxicillin
  • topical antibiotics, such as dapsone
  • prescription-strength salicylic acid

In severe cases, a laser procedure called photodynamic therapy may be useful in removing the pustules.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.



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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.