Pustules and papules are types of inflammatory acne. When a pore clogs, the bacteria trapped inside can multiple rapidly. The immune system will then send white blood cells to the site of the infection, causing inflammation, redness, and tenderness. Depending on the presence of pus, this can result in papules or pustules, two common types of inflammatory acne. These small, dome-shaped bumps are easily recognizable, have distinct borders, and most often appear on the face.


While pustules and papules are not typically categorized as a serious form of acne, they can be difficult to live with. These lesions are very noticeable, especially on the face, and they can be painful to touch. If you’re having trouble clearing your inflammatory acne with over-the-counter products, visiting a dermatologist can provide the clarity you need.


Pustules and Papules Symptoms

Papule and pustule symptoms are very similar, but there is one distinguishing factor. Both types of acne are inflammatory, which means they are the result of an immune system reaction. This inflammation creates pink or red dome-shaped bumps, which are typically easy to see on the skin. These bumps can appear in a variety of shapes, but they always have distinct borders. Papules, in particular, are known to cluster together, forming a rash-like lesion that feels rough to the touch.

That said, pustules are typically larger and more painful than papules. This is because, in addition to the immune system reaction causing the inflammation, pustules are filled with pus. This substance is a combination of white blood cells and waste from bacterial reproduction. By contrast, papules do not have pus. Instead, these lesions are often the result of a ruptured comedone, which allows bacteria to disperse into the skin tissue.


Common Causes of Pustules and Papules

Like all types of acne, pustules and papules are caused by clogged pores. This is most often the result of an increase in oil production, which can trap bacteria and dead skin cells inside the pore. Sebum, or oil, production can depend on a variety of factors, but some of the most common include:

  • Stress
  • Puberty
  • Pregnancy
  • Post-Partum
  • Certain medications, such as corticosteroids

Pustules appear when the walls of the clogged pore break down, allowing the contents to spill into the surrounding skin tissue. This is one of the reasons why papules and pustules tend to look larger than whiteheads and blackheads.


Pustule and Papule Treatment Options

Non-prescription acne products are typically enough to clear most papule and pustule outbreaks. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, for example, can both kill acne-causing bacteria and keep the pore clear to prevent future breakouts. These ingredients are widely available, and people can choose between creams, lotions, cleansers, and spot treatments. Retinoids, both over the counter and prescription, are also effective for treating papules and pustules.

Sometimes, over-the-counter treatments are ineffective, especially when it comes to inflammatory acne. When a product doesn’t work, consider visiting a dermatologist. This type of doctor can provide access to a range of stronger, more effective papule and pustule treatment options. In most cases, this will include antibiotics, but it can also include spironolactone or progestin.


When to See a Doctor for Pustules and Papules

If your papules and pustules are not responding well to over-the-counter treatment, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a doctor. A dermatologist can help you determine the best treatment option for your skin, and in severe situations, they can provide access to more effective medication.

In some cases, these milder forms of inflammatory acne may not be what you think they are. Papules that are very large or seem to be especially swollen may actual be acne nodules, a more severe type of acne. Only a doctor has the experience required to make the distinction and provide a personalized treatment plan. Contact us today to schedule your consultation.