Most of us at some point have had a sudden pimple or blackhead form, or even flare-ups of them.

Pimples and blackheads are just two symptoms of the overall inflammatory condition the medical literature refers to as “acne vulgaris.” It’s more commonly known as just acne.

Acne is the most common skin disorder in the United States, affecting 40 to 50 million Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

Acne is the result of a blockage of the hair follicles in the skin. This blockage usually involves oil or skin cells. You may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

These outbreaks may not be limited to the face. They may also occur on the:

  • back
  • shoulders
  • neck
  • chest

Acne can appear in different forms on your skin. Here are some images of the most common types of acne pimples.

It’s important not to blame yourself for acne. Those old familiar tales about greasy french fries, chocolate, or dirty skin causing acne are largely false.

Instead, what’s happening is complex. The oil glands at the tips of the hair follicles in your skin are possibly overactive, usually due to hormonal changes. Pores become clogged and inflammation ensues.

This happens especially during puberty, which is why so many teenagers experience acne outbreaks. But acne can happen at any age.

Some women also experience acne outbreaks just before their period. Birth control pills may help manage this.

The goals for treatment include treating and preventing acne, as well as preventing scarring.

Over-the-counter treatments

The first solution to consider is treating acne at home using common over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. This may be suitable only for very mild acne.

Benzoyl peroxide

A well-known treatment for acne is the antibacterial agent benzoyl peroxide. Here’s why it’s a good choice:

  • There’s no risk of bacterial resistance to benzoyl peroxide.
  • Adding benzoyl peroxide to antibiotic therapy is recommended because it reduces the risk of bacterial resistance.
  • It’s available in gels, cleansers, and spot treatments. It comes in different concentrations geared to the severity of the breakout.
  • It’s affordable and easy to find in many stores.
  • It works to kill bacteria under the skin and unclog pores.
  • It’s good for treating inflammatory acne (those red bumps).

Here’s when it’s not a good choice:

  • It’s not as good for blackheads and whiteheads.
  • It’s also not effective for nodulocystic acne, the most serious acne category. Nodulocystic acne calls for a dermatologist’s care.

Other OTC treatments

Another option is adapalene (Differin), a topical retinoid. This is the most important acne medication and is used to prevent all kinds of acne lesions.

Salicylic acid may also help treat mild acne.

Prescription treatments

More severe cases of acne require a doctor’s visit, so you may need to see a dermatologist. Prescription treatments may include the following:

  • Your doctor may prescribe topical or oral antibiotics, which may be needed for more severe and widespread acne.
  • Oral isotretinoin (Accutane) may also be prescribed for more severe nodules and cysts, scarring acne, as well as acne not responding to conventional treatments. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85 percent of people who take one course of this medicine see permanent clearing of their acne.
  • Birth control pills in tandem with an antibiotic or a drug called spironolactone (off-label treatment for acne) may be prescribed for female patients.
  • In the case of a very severe flare-up, the use of an oral steroid, such as prednisone, can be used when initiating other treatments, such as oral isotretinoin.

You may wonder what lifestyle changes you can add to your topical or oral drug regimen. Here are some to keep in mind:

  • Protect yourself from the sun. Many acne medications will increase your sensitivity to the sun and make you more likely to get a sunburn.
  • Don’t pick. Don’t pick at any acne lesions or touch them. Picking acne can result in scarring.
  • Exercise. Exercising is a great way to minimize stress.
  • Avoid foods that may flare acne. There’s evidence to suggest that cow’s milk and foods that have a high glycemic index may cause acne to flare.

Acne may affect a person’s mental health. Indeed, stigma still exists. Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem are some potential effects.

If you’re a parent and your child is experiencing acne, help them by offering not only the physical remedies listed above but also emotional support.

Empathize with them while helping them get the medical treatment they need.

If acne is causing you or your family member to experience feelings of depression or anxiety, reach out to a mental health professional. They can offer more specific coping strategies and treatments.

Many cases of acne are short term, but don’t hesitate to seek a dermatologist’s help if an outbreak gets serious. There are treatments available to treat and keep your acne at bay.

If you don’t already have a dermatologist, our Healthline FindCare tool can help you connect to physicians in your area.