The Common Signs and Symptoms of Acne

Pre-teen boy suffering from Acne
Common signs and symptoms of acne.. BSIP/UIG / Getty Images

What are some common acne symptoms? Surprisingly, signs of acne can go way beyond that typical whitehead pimple.

Acne Causes Many Different Types of Blemishes

Acne vulgaris is the medical term for common acne. It is a disorder of the pilosebaceous unit, or what we often refer to as the pore. Acne causes some form of lesion on the skin.

Papules are red, raised bumps. Some papules are very small, others can be fairly large.

Acne papules often turn into pustules. When you think pimples, this is the type of blemish that comes to mind: red, inflamed, and with a white head.

Nodules and cysts are more serious acne lesions. These are larger than your typical pimple, and develop in deeper layers of the skin.

Acne also causes blackheads and non-inflamed whiteheads called milia.

Acne Blemishes are Divided into Two Categories: Inflamed and Non-Inflamed

You can get two types of acne blemishes: inflamed and non-inflamed.

Inflamed acne breakouts are the blemishes that we typically think of when we hear the word "acne." With inflamed acne, you have red, swollen pimples.

Inflamed acne can be mild, with just occasional breakouts here and there, or it can be more severe. Severe inflamed acne causes deep blemishes. These blemishes may not only be swollen, but they can also ooze, crust, and scab over.

Cystic acne is the most serious form of inflamed acne.

Inflamed acne breakouts can often cause scarring.

Non-inflamed acne, also called comedonal acne, doesn't cause blemishes that are red and painful. Non-inflamed acne breakouts are blackheads, milia, closed comedones, and microcomedones(pore blockages too small to see).

Symptoms of non-inflamed acne include bumps or bumpiness across the skin's surface, or an uneven skin texture.

Even if comedones are not easily visible, they will make the skin feel rough or "sandpapery."

Most people have a combination of both non-inflamed and inflamed blemishes.

Acne Can Affect More than just Your Face

Acne very often appears on the face. But that's not the only place you can get acne breakouts.

Acne can also develop on other areas of the body, like the neck, chest, and shoulders. Back acne is very common. So are pimples on the butt.

No matter where acne is occurring, treatment is generally the same. You'll either need an over-the-counter acne treatment, or a prescription acne medication. 

Acne Can Cause Pigmentation and Scarring

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is the medical term used to describe dark, discolored spots left behind after an acne blemish has healed. It's a super common problem. Most people with acne will develop these marks, to some degree.

Luckily, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is not a true scar and in most cases will fade over time.

Acne can also cause depressed or pitted scarring, or ice pick scars.

For some people, acne blemishes also cause hypertrophic, or raised, scars.

The more severe the acne, the higher the chances of developing scarring. So, it's important to treat inflammatory acne as quickly as possible. This often means seeing a dermatologist for help.

But even if you develop scars, there are many treatments that can help diminish acne scars.

Other Skin Conditions can Cause Pimples, Too

It's true—not all pimples are caused by acne. Certain skin conditions, like rosacea, folliculitis, even ingrown hairs, can cause pimple-like bumps that look remarkably similar to acne.

If you're not positive what you're experiencing is common acne, see a physician to rule out acne look-alike conditions.

Next Steps:

Types of Acne

Acne at Different Life Stages


"Questions and Answers About Acne." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Jan 2006. National Institutes of Health.

Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE, et. al. "Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 74.5 (2016): 945-73.

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