It can be difficult to distinguish between various skin issues, with some infections looking like the much more benign acne. So how can you tell what’s what?
Acne, the common skin condition characterised by bumps, pustules, pimples or spots that hormonal teenagers are prone to suffering, isn’t in itself dangerous. It can be uncomfortable and embarrassing for those suffering, but it doesn’t tend to cause problems beyond its effects on appearance and self-confidence. Infections do, though! Left untreated, skin infections can make people quite seriously ill and lead to permanent damage, so it’s important to know if what you think is acne might actually be something more serious.
A skin infection can mimic the appearance of acne, because both can involve spots and inflammation, and while it is possible for acne itself to become infected as a secondary condition, it’s important to know what’s going on, and to tackle problems with the right treatment.
Let’s take a closer look at some possible infections that could be mistaken for acne.
Acne can get infected if it’s been popped or squeezed; with the skin barrier broken, microbes can get in and cause a secondary problem. Keep affected skin clean, and don’t use unwashed hands to squeeze spots! In severe (though rare) cases, infected acne is known as cystic acne and will need medical treatment, as it can leave scars or permanent damage to the skin.
Folliculitis (pictured below) is the inflammation associated with a blocked hair gland, which has become infected with a bacterial or fungal microbe. The gland becomes bumpy, enlarged and can be hot or itchy. You may need antibiotics or antifungals if it doesn’t resolve by itself. It occurs where there are hair follicles, so is most common on the scalp, chin, cheeks and chest.
Also known as staph, this common bacteria is present on skin and all around us, but sometimes causes problems if the skin barrier is damaged. A staph infection can look like acne, with pustules and hot, painful bumps on the skin. It needs swift treatment to prevent it spreading or scarring.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a very serious kind of staph, though thankfully rare, because it’s not treatable with conventional antibiotics. Staph can occur anywhere on the body there’s been trauma - even if it’s a very tiny cut - but acne tends to crop up on the face, and less commonly on the chest, back and shoulders. Staph, especially MRSA, is often accompanied by a fever, unlike acne.
Impetigo (pictured below) is a very contagious bacterial skin infection that can look a bit like acne if it’s on the face in its early, blistery stages. Unlike acne, the sores/blisters crusts over and the condition is mostly recognisable by the yellow crusty patches, and its rapid spread to other areas of the body. It can be caused by staph or, more commonly, Group A Streptococcus.
A boil or abscess is caused by a blocked follicle or damage to the skin barrier getting infected. Although boils can look similar to acne comedones, they can get worse with the infection quite quickly and may need treatment with antibiotics.
If you suspect that your skin condition - whether acne, eczema or any other - is infected, get it looked at straight away! If you cannot access a doctor immediately, then ask a pharmacist for advice. If you have a temperature, or are finding your skin is very painful, swollen or hot to the touch, it’s particularly important to rule out infection.
Otherwise, stick to a meticulous hygiene routine, especially if you’re tempted to pop pimples or squeeze spots! It’s very easy to introduce bacteria from your fingers to your face, and end up with an infection on top of your acne.
If you’re concerned about a rash on your face and don’t know what it is, get a diagnosis from your doctor; given that topical steroid creams are a known trigger for perioral dermatitis and are not recommended for acne, it’s important that you get the right treatment, so don’t just put eczema cream on your face!
For further information about what you can do holistically to manage acne flare-ups, see our blog Best Natural Treatment For Acne And Face Eczema.
Balmonds makes a great collection of gentle, natural skincare to keep sensitive skin healthy and clean, whether it is prone to acne, eczema or perioral dermatitis. None of our products contain soap, SLS, perfumes, paraffin or silicones, so they won’t strip oils from the skin or dry it out. Instead, the natural moisturisers and cleansers work in harmony with the skin’s natural oils, keeping it balanced and healthy.
Recommended products for acne-prone skin:
Balmonds Scalp Oil with tea tree, rosemary & borage (f14.99 for 50ml): a great natural antiseptic rescue oil for anywhere on the body, not just the scalp!
Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream with hemp & shea (from £13.99 for 100ml): an unscented, paraffin-free nourishing cream for daily use.
Balmonds Rosehip Scar Oil with rosehip & calendula (£18.99 for 50ml): good for improving the appearance of acne scars and supporting the skin's cycle of regeneration and repair.
Balmonds Natural Shampoo & Body Wash with nettle and chamomile (£19 for 200ml): an effective, unscented, SLS-free wash for body, face and scalp.
Balmonds Cooling Cream with menthol, aloe & lavender (£19 for 100ml): a calming lotion to take the heat out of itchy skin.
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.