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Pustules are small bumps on the skin that contain fluid or pus. They usually present as white bumps surrounded by red skin. These bumps look very similar to pimples, but they can grow quite big. Pustules may develop on any part of the body, but they most commonly form on the back, chest, and face. They may be found in clusters in the same area of the body.

Pustules may be a form of acne typically caused by hormonal imbalances or hormonal changes in the body. This is a very common skin condition, particularly among teenagers and young adults. You can treat pustules with medication, or surgery in extreme cases, if they become bothersome.

What causes pustules to form?

Pustules may form when your skin becomes inflamed as a result of an allergic reaction to food, environmental allergens, or poisonous insect bites. However, the most common cause of pustules is acne. Acne develops when the pores of your skin become clogged with oil and dead skin cells.

This blockage causes patches of skin to bulge, resulting in a pustule. Pustules usually contain pus due to an infection of the pore cavity. Pustules caused by acne can become hard and painful. When this occurs, the pustule becomes a cyst. This condition is known as cystic acne.

What do pustules look like?

Pustules are easy to identify. They appear as small bumps on the surface of your skin. The bumps are usually white or red with white in the center. They may be painful to the touch and the skin around the bump may be red and inflamed.

Common locations for pustules are the:

  • shoulders
  • chest
  • back
  • face
  • neck
  • underarms
  • pubic area
  • hairline

When do pustules need medical attention?

Pustules that suddenly erupt all over the face or in patches on various parts of the body may indicate that you have a bacterial infection. Contact your doctor if you have a sudden outbreak of pustules. You should also call your doctor if your pustules are painful or leaking fluid. These may be symptoms of a serious skin infection.

If you experience any of the following symptoms along with pustules, you should go to the nearest emergency room immediately:

How are pustules treated?

Small pustules may simply go away without treatment. If small pustules persist, it’s helpful to wash your skin using warm water and a mild facial cleanser. Doing this twice per day will help remove any oil buildup, which is the main cause of acne. Just make sure to use your fingertips instead of a washcloth to cleanse your face. Scrubbing pustules with a washcloth may further irritate your skin.

You may also want to use over-the-counter (OTC) acne medications, soaps, or creams to treat small acne pustules. The best topical products for treating pustules contain peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur. However, these treatments should never be used in your genital area. And if you have a sulfur allergy make sure to avoid using any products that contain that ingredient. Read more about acne treatment.

OTC products help treat pustules by drying the top layer of skin and absorbing excess surface oils. Some products are strong and may cause your skin to become extremely dry and peel. If you have sensitive skin, look for products that are specially made for your skin type so your condition doesn’t get worse.

It may be tempting to remove your pustules by popping them, but you should never squeeze, pick, or pinch them. Doing so can cause damage to your skin or make the infection worse. You should also not use oil-based products, such as lotions or petroleum jelly, in the areas affected by pustules. These products can further block your pores and cause more pustules to grow.

When to see your doctor

If your pustules aren’t improving with home remedies and OTC treatments, talk to a dermatologist and ask them about more aggressive treatment options. They may be able to drain your pustules safely or prescribe a stronger medication.

Prescription medications can be very useful in eliminating acne pustules, especially those caused by bacterial infections. Some medications your doctor may prescribe include:

In severe cases, a procedure called photodynamic therapy (PDT) may be used to treat pustules. PDT is a treatment that combines light and a special light-activated solution that targets and destroys acne. Aside from eliminating pustules and other related skin conditions caused by acne, PDT may also diminish older acne scars and make your skin smoother. Talk to your dermatologist to see whether photodynamic therapy may be used to treat your condition. 

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Written by: April Kahnon: Jul 11, 2017

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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