Most people think acne is a problem in the teenage years that ultimately resolves. But the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that adult acne can be far more stubborn than teenage acne. In fact, while adult acne often forms without an underlying health complaint, it also can indicate other health issues. Older patients who suddenly suffer from an outbreak of pimples should get checked out by a physician to rule out any other problems.
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Hormonal fluctuations and the overproduction of particular hormones called androgens can lead to acne by overstimulating the sebaceous glands, which produce the skin's natural oils. Too much oil can cause clogged pores, and it also provides a hospitable environment for acne-causing bacteria to reproduce. The combination of these factors can lead to a serious case of adult acne, according to the AAD.
A sudden outbreak of adult acne in a patient who's in his 30s or 40s can indicate type 2 diabetes; according to the American Diabetes Association, diabetic skin complications, including acne, occur in up to one-third of diabetes patients at some point. Because type 2 diabetes reduces the body's ability to heal from infection, acne in diabetics can be particularly difficult to treat.
Adult women who suffer from acne may have an underlying hormonal disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This disorder, which causes missed or irregular periods and male-pattern hair growth along with bad acne, results from high levels of androgen and low levels of estrogen in the body. Women diagnosed with PCOS have a risk of infertility and metabolic syndrome. Several other endocrine system disorders, including problems with the thyroid, can lead to acne breakouts in adults.
It should be noted that although underlying health problems are a possible cause of adult acne, most adult acne sufferers actually have no serious medical conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic. Certain normal changes, such as getting pregnant or starting or stopping birth control pills, can lead to an outbreak of adult acne in women, the Mayo Clinic says, pointing out that most people with adult acne have normal levels of hormones.
If your skin breaks out suddenly as an adult, physicians recommend getting a full medical workup, especially if you have other symptoms such as unusual thirst (which could indicate diabetes), menstrual irregularities (which could mean PCOS), or fatigue (which might point toward thyroid problems). If it turns out your adult acne does not indicate underlying health issues, or even if it does, several treatments are available that can clear your skin.