Diagnosing acne

Diagnosing acne

When should you see a doctor about acne?

Acne as a skin condition can be either mild and occasional or severe and persistent. In either instance, you may feel unhappy, embarrassed or uncomfortable.

It is advisable to consult a primary care doctor or skin specialist (dermatologist) if:

  • Your acne affects your self-esteem and makes you unhappy or uncomfortable
  • You have noted scarring on the skin as a result of your acne breakouts
  • You notice the appearance of dark patches (or pigmentation) on the skin
  • You have severe acne breakouts
  • Your acne breakouts don’t appear to respond to over-the-counter remedies and topical ointments

A primary care doctor (general practitioner or GP) can prescribe some medications to help reduce breakouts or clear acne.

If breakouts are persistent or more severe it is best to seek medical treatment from a dermatologist who specialises in conditions that affect the skin. He or she will advise medical treatment that is best for your condition. This will include topical lotions and cleansing products, as well as prescribed medication.

Some popular non-prescription acne lotions, cleansers and other skin products can cause an adverse reaction to those more prone to sensitivity. General skin sensitivity (redness, itchiness or irritation) in the area a product has been applied shouldn’t be confused with a ‘reaction.’

Sometimes a non-prescription product can cause any of the following and should be seen to by a medical professional as soon as possible:

  • Feeling faint
  • Difficulties with breathing
  • Tightness of the throat
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, lips or tongue

How is acne diagnosed?

Early detections and treatment of acne does significantly reduce the risk of long-term physical scarring, as well as lasting damage to a person’s self-esteem.

Your dermatologist or GP will make their assessment by examining your skin to identify the types of lesions and their level of severity during the consultation. From there, if necessary your GP will refer you to a dermatologist for specialist analysis. If you are already consulting with a skin specialist, he or she will examine, diagnose and determine the best course of treatment for you.

Your doctor will also discuss your medical history with you. Information that is key includes conditions that have been diagnosed by a medical professional and any prescription or over-the-counter medications, products or supplements you are currently using.

Any major stresses or recent life changes should also be mentioned. Women will be asked about their menstrual cycles to determine if hormonal fluctuations are playing a role in acne breakouts.

You may also have questions about your condition and the treatment options available to you. Questions that are beneficial for you to ask your specialist include:

  • What treatment approach do you think is best for me?
  • If the first course of treatment isn’t successful, what will you likely recommend we do next?
  • Will there be any side effects I can expect with treatment?
  • How soon after beginning treatment will my acne begin to clear?
  • How often will you need to see me to evaluate the progress of my treatment?
  • Is it safe to stop my medications if I don’t feel they are helping? 
  • Are there any self-care steps I can do to help alleviate my symptoms?
  • Would you recommend any changes to my diet or any over-the-counter products (soaps, lotions, sunscreens and cosmetics) I am using on my skin?

Your specialist will likely also ask you a number of questions, some of which may require in-depth explanations. These may include:

  • When did you first develop this skin condition?
  • Is there anything you have noticed that appears to trigger an acne breakout? (stress or a menstrual cycle)
  • Are you currently taking any medications or supplements? (prescription or over-the-counter)
  • For girls and women: Are you using any oral contraceptives? Do you have regular menstrual periods? Are you pregnant? Do you plan to fall pregnant soon?
  • Is your acne affecting your self-esteem and level of confidence in your everyday life?
  • Do you have any relatives with acne problems?
  • What type of soaps, lotions, sunscreens, cosmetics or hair products do you use?
  • Have you tried any other methods of treatment or taken other self-care steps to treat your acne? Has anything been effective or appeared to worsen your symptoms?

In most instances, testing may not be necessary to diagnose acne. If it is suspected that acne may be a symptom of another medical problem, specific tests may be requested. Some women have higher than normal amounts of testosterone in the body which can lead to breakouts.

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