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Pustules

Pustules are a type of acne that can form anywhere on the body. Doctors have not pinpointed the exact cause of these pus-filled pimples, but typically treat them with over-the-counter and prescription topical creams. Oral medications may also be prescribed.

Last Modified: August 29, 2022
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What Is a Pustule?

Pustules frequently look like white bumps. The body’s natural immune response to fight infection can cause redness and swelling around these blemishes. Pustules can vary in size, sometimes growing large.

Pus inside a pustule is a combination of sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria that get trapped and accumulate in pores beneath the skin, causing infection. Pustules develop on many parts of the body, depending on the cause.

Most people often find them on their:
  • Face
  • Neck
  • Back
  • Upper chest
  • Scalp
  • Buttocks
  • Arms
  • Groin

People with acne, such as boys and girls with teen acne, get pustules because of hormonal imbalances and an overproduction of sebum. But acne pustules erupt on people of any age. Other conditions and diseases such as smallpox, chickenpox and certain types of psoriasis and rosacea can also cause pustules to form.

How to Treat Pustules

Dermatologists design a treatment plan based on their diagnosis, other medications you may take and possible drug interactions and your personal and family’s medical history. Pustules are diagnosed based on the appearance of the pimples and are categorized based on how large and widespread they are.

Acne is graded as mild, moderate or severe, which then determines the preferred acne treatment approach. Pustules that stem from other conditions, such as chickenpox and smallpox, require treatment of the underlying condition.

Doctors recommend or prescribe various oral and topical medications to treat pustules. In more severe cases, they look at more invasive therapies as treatment. Some are over-the counter, while others require prescriptions.

Treatments for Pustules
  • Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid: These are the key ingredients in many OTC topical creams. Typically creams contain one or the other ingredient, benzoyl peroxide to kill bacteria or salicylic acid to stimulate cell growth. Dermatologists sometimes recommend the use of both types of creams.
  • Topical retinoids: These prescription treatments should be used under the guidance of a dermatologist to avoid side effects such as dry skin, peeling and sunlight sensitivity. Retinoids are produced from vitamin A and can help unclog pores.
  • Topical antibiotics: These target bacterial infections, but because antibiotics don't clear pores, dermatologists often prescribe them along with other treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide or retinoids.
  • Oral antibiotics: Antibiotics kill bacteria that cause infections beneath your skin, reduce inflammation and redness and allow the pores to clear. Antibiotics typically clear the skin within four weeks, although treatment can last for months.
  • Birth control pills: Estrogen reduces the effects of androgens, hormones that increase human oil production. Birth control pills are an effective treatment for women who experience acne during their menstrual cycle or who have flare-ups in the early stages of menopause.
  • Oral isotretinoin: This is prescription only, and doctors use it for severe forms of acne. Pregnant women should avoid this medication.

If topical or oral medications don’t clear your pustules, your dermatologist may recommend other medical procedures. Among them are corticosteroid injections, chemical peels, extraction treatments and laser and light-based therapies. Doctors see these treatments as a last resort.

If pustules worsen, talk to your doctor. If you experience fever, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting, seek immediate medical attention.

Can Pustules Be Prevented?

There is no foolproof way to prevent pustules, as with other forms of acne. However, there are a few things you can do to lower your risk of getting them.

Prevention tips often include:
  • Wash your face with gentle, alcohol-free cleansers and warm water.
  • Choose non-comedogenic skin care products.
  • Use moisturizer and broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect your skin.
  • Wash pillowcases and bed sheets often
  • Maintain overall health with rest, hydration and a balanced diet.

Talk to your dermatologist for a customized skin care plan for you. Your doctor can also help answer any health and general wellness concerns you have and discuss your specific needs.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.