If you have acne, you’re not alone. About 80 percent of people between the ages of 11 and 30 experience acne outbreaks. In fact, acne can happen at any age.

Severe acne is more than a few minor blemishes that clear up in a matter of days. It can cover a large area of skin. It can also cause swelling and hard, painful lesions.

While it may take time to find what works for you, there are several effective treatments for severe acne. The right strategies can bring relief during outbreaks and prevent infection, discoloration, or scarring.

Severe acne can be frustrating to deal with. You may be tempted to try some things that only make matters worse.

Continue reading to learn what you can do — and what you shouldn’t do — when you have severe acne.

It’s important to follow a skincare routine. Gentle cleaning is key to preventing your skin health from getting worse. Consider these tips:

  • wash your face twice a day
  • use mild soap and warm water or a gentle cleanser
  • be very careful when shaving your face
  • wash your face again after sweating, as perspiration can make acne worse
  • take a full shower after strenuous physical activity to remove excess oil and sweat
  • remove your makeup before bed

For some people, even small amounts of sunshine can irritate acne-prone skin. Also, some acne medications can make you more susceptible to harmful rays.

Here are a few precautions you can take to minimize damage from the sun:

  • Find out if the acne medication you use includes warnings about the sun.
  • Keep vulnerable skin out of direct sunlight whenever possible.
  • When outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck.
  • If you tend to break out on your back or chest, be sure to keep those areas covered. Wear soft, breathable fabrics.
  • Ask your doctor which sunscreens are best for you.

There are a variety of OTC medications to help with acne. They come in many forms, including creams, lotions, gels, soaps, and wipes.

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing OTC products:

  • Helpful ingredients include benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, and sulfur.
  • For best results, always wash your skin before applying OTC products.
  • Follow the package directions when applying the product.
  • Be patient. It can take weeks for some OTC products to start working.
  • Check the package insert so you’re aware of potential side effects and how long they may last.
  • If you have severe side effects or your pain is increasing, stop using the product and call your doctor.

Cold and heat can help reduce swelling and make your pain less severe.

Use ice to reduce swelling of new blemishes. Wrap an ice cube in a towel and hold in place for 10 minutes. Repeat up to three times with 10-minute breaks in between.

Apply a warm compress to new whiteheads. Soak a clean washcloth in warm water and hold in place for 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t let the washcloth get too hot. Repeat this process three to four times a day until it releases the pus.

Severe acne may not respond to OTC products or basic home care. This doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. You should see a doctor who specializes in acne so they can put you on the right treatment plan.

If you don’t have a board-certified dermatologist, ask your doctor to refer you to one. You can also use the American Academy of Dermatology’s searchable database to find a doctor near you.

Talk to your dermatologist when:

  • OTC products or prescriptions aren’t working
  • your acne is getting worse or more painful
  • your skin appears to be infected
  • acne is starting to scar your face or leave dark spots
  • acne is affecting your self-esteem or causing emotional distress

Some of the medications and procedures your dermatologist might use are:

  • antibiotics, such as minocycline or doxycycline
  • retinoids, which come as creams, gels, and lotions
  • steroid injections
  • oral contraceptives (females only)
  • laser or light therapy
  • prescription chemical peels
  • drainage and extraction to remove acne cysts
  • isotretinoin, for people whose acne doesn’t respond to any other treatment

When washing your face, don’t scrub or use a washcloth, mesh sponge, or any other material that can irritate your skin. Avoid using harsh products that include the following:

  • abrasives
  • alcohol
  • astringents
  • exfoliants
  • fragrance
  • toners

You should also consider avoiding:

  • acne concealers
  • facial scrubs or facial masks
  • products that are oily or greasy
  • indoor tanning beds or other tanning devices

It’s easy to get carried away in your quest to get rid of acne. Excessively washing or scrubbing your skin can irritate it more.

When you have an outbreak, try to keep your hands off your face. It may be tempting. Picking at or squeezing pimples can lead to pain, infection, and scarring. Let your face heal naturally or let your dermatologist handle it.

Earbud cords, phones, helmets, and straps can create friction or put pressure on sensitive skin on your face, hairline, and neck. If you have acne on your back or chest, try to prevent your backpack or purse straps from touching it.

Be wary of products that make extraordinary claims. Certain alternative and complementary treatments can be effective. However, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before trying them.

Even 100 percent natural products can interact with other treatments. Sometimes, this can make your acne worse or cause other side effects.

Severe acne can be stubborn, but you don’t have to accept it as your normal. There are ways to successfully manage acne, clear your skin, and lower the chances of permanent scarring or discoloration.

Talk to your dermatologist if your current treatment regimen isn’t working.