Antibiotics for acne: are they worth it?

Antibiotics for acne: are they worth it?

antibiotics for acne

Pimples are common skin problem, causing despair for millions of sufferers worldwide. It most commonly occurs during teenage years, but can often spread into adulthood. Acne usually affects areas of the skin that contain the most sebaceous follicles, such as the face, chest and back. Causing noticeable redness and inflammation, this skin condition can cause self-esteem issues and, in some cases, even lead to depression.

It is notoriously difficult to treat, as the skin requires a delicate balance in order to function correctly. Overly harsh skin cleansers that strip away the natural oils of the skin can exacerbate the problem, even for those who have excessively oily skin. It is a common misconception that pimples are the simple result of eating too much greasy food or not cleansing the skin sufficiently. In fact, there is a much more complex web of contributing factors – including hormones and genetics – that can result in the appearance of acne.

Causes of acne

This skin disease is essentially caused by bacteria, which has become trapped in the skin below hardened oil and dead skin cells. Cleansing and exfoliating the skin can help to slough away dead skin cells and prevent a build-up of sebum, but the best way to treat acne is to tackle the underlying cause. This is where acne medication can play a part in treating acne, as they are designed to kill the bacteria responsible for causing acne in the first place.

Oral acne antibiotics

Acne antibiotics are often prescribed by doctors for sufferers of moderate to severe acne, where alternative treatment methods have not been successful. Essentially, they work by reducing the amount of the Propionibacteria acnes (P. acnes) bacteria that causes pimples. Some commonly used antibiotics for acne include erythromycin, tetracycline and minocycline, which are used in conjunction with topical skin creams.


The great advantage to using oral antibiotics is that they can dramatically improve acne, often clearing the skin completely. For those who have suffered with it for years, this can bring huge relief. Using antibiotics can sometimes be the only way to get rid of pimples when all other treatments have failed.


However, using antibiotics does come with associated risks.

  • Aside from the fact that acne antibiotics may take months to have an effect, they can also result in unpleasant side effects like staining of the teeth or gastro-intestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Darker skin types can experience increased sensitivity to the sun.
  • Women who take the contraceptive pill can develop brown skin spotting or vaginal yeast infections.

Antibiotics should only ever be taken under the guidance of a doctor, ensuring the full course is taken. Sometimes acne sufferers stop taking their antibiotics when their skin looks better, but before all the bacteria have actually been killed. Only the weakest bacteria will be killed first, leaving the more resistant bacteria remaining on the skin. If the treatments are then stopped, these resistant bacteria are free to multiply and spread like wildfire – causing the acne to subsequently become worse than it was before.

The main concern

The biggest problem with using them is the growing issue of antibiotic resistance. Over time, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming more common, due to the way bacteria mutates. The prevalence of resistance is an issue of concern in the medical field, with many doctors and dermatologists now less willing to prescribe antibiotics for pimples than in previous years. Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at fighting bacteria, which are becoming increasingly more resilient – hence the growth of ‘super bugs’, such as MRSA, which have developed an immunity to antibiotic treatment.

This makes treating pimples with antibiotics more difficult, as they are not as effective as they used to be and the user may need to experiment with several different types before finding success. It is estimated that as many as 30% of acne sufferers are harboring antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so these days these pills alone are usually not enough to solve the problem. Using antibiotics long-term only increases the problem of resistance, so doctors are now limiting the time period for which these medications are taken. Alternative methods to treat acne are increasingly being sought. A holistic approach to improving general health and lifestyle is now considered to be important, and advances in skin care technology have seen the development of effective serums and lotions that work well in fighting acne.


The debate over antibiotic resistance rages on – clearly, antibiotics have a place in medicine but are they being over-prescribed? Should we stop relying on them so heavily before super bugs threaten to spread beyond control? For an sufferer who has suffered in desperation for years, and tried every other treatment method out there, they are often willing to take the risk. From a wider perspective, perhaps the medical industry needs to invest more in researching antibiotic alternatives, before the problem escalates further.

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