Moderate to severe acne often fails to respond to over-the-counter medications, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and even to oral antibiotics. If you have bad acne that doesn't budge despite careful treatment, you may need to consult with your dermatologist to determine your best options. In some cases, your acne might require sulfa drugs, which are a different type of antibiotics.
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If you have pimples, it's because your pores have clogged with a combination of oil and dead skin cells, according to MayoClinic.com. Once these blockages take place, bacteria can build up in those pores, sometimes leading to a few scattered big pimples and other times leading to multiple infected pimples and inflammation.
Sulfa drugs such as Bactrim and Septra actually contain two different antibiotics: sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim, according to Drugs.com. The medications, available by prescription only, help your body fight bacterial infection by slowing down the bacteria's growth, giving your body's immune system a chance to kill the organisms. Although dermatologists prescribe sulfa drugs only occasionally for acne, they can help in cases where other antibiotics have not.
Dermatologists have used sulfa drugs for decades to treat acne, and medical research from the 1970s and 1980s confirms their effectiveness. In a study published in 1978 in Dermatologica, a medical journal, researchers led by K. Nordin reported using sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim in 42 patients with acne vulgaris for a total of 18 weeks. After treatment concluded, 79 percent of those patients had excellent results or complete remission of their acne, even though skin-level analysis showed a slight increase in bacteria living on the skin.
Relatively common side effects of sulfa drugs include dizziness or a sensation of spinning, ringing in your ears, insomnia and joint pain, according to Drugs.com. If you experience any of these, tell your physician. Less common but more serious side effects can include severe allergic reactions featuring fever and a blistering rash on your skin. If this happens to you, you should seek medical help.
Sulfa drugs treat only one aspect of acne: bacterial infection. Because of this, your dermatologist may recommend you use another prescription or over-the-counter product along with the sulfa medication to fight your acne. According to MayoClinic.com, using a benzoyl peroxide-based product along with antibiotics can help optimize your chances of successful treatment. However, you shouldn't use any additional therapies without discussing them first with your dermatologist.