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Prescription Acne Medication: Side Effects to Watch Out For

July 14, 2020


When over-the-counter acne treatments are ineffective, some people may visit their doctor or a dermatologist for a prescription acne medication. There are a number of effective, Rx acne treatments available for patients, which can range from topical gels or ointments, to oral medications like antibiotics.

However, not all acne treatments work in the same way, and not all of them affect people in the same way. This means there are a range of side effects that can occur from using a prescription acne medication. Symptoms can range from common and mild, to rare and potentially dangerous.

We’ll explore a host of acne medications side effects to watch out for if you or a family member has recently started taking one.

Prescribed an acne medication? Don’t pay full price.

Side Effects of Acne Medication

Side effects of acne medications depend on both the type and the strength of the treatment. For example, the most common side effects of topical acne treatments are skin dryness and irritation. While oral and topical medications can have differing effects, they may also share some common side effects.

Common Side Effects

Depending on the type of medication, common side effects of acne treatments include:

  • Dry, flaky, or peeling skin
  • Tingly or irritated skin
  • Skin redness
  • Upset stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Increased sensitivity to the sun

These side effects apply to both oral medications and topical gels or lotions. Generally, these side effects are only temporary and will pass with time. However, speak with your doctor if any side effect that you experience persists or worsens.

Serious Side Effects

While rare, any medication, including those used to treat acne, can have serious, potentially life-threatening side effects. If you’re taking a newly prescribed acne medication, watch for symptoms of an allergic reaction, including:

  • Skin rash or hives
  • Swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
  • Severe burning or swelling of a treated area
  • Throat tightness
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Allergic reactions are medical emergencies. If you think someone is experiencing an allergic reaction, seek medical help right away.

However, Prescription acne treatments can cause more than allergic reactions. For example, Isotretinoin can:

  • Damage organs
  • Increase risk of depression and suicide
  • Cause ulcerative colitis
  • Lead to severe birth defects if used while pregnant

As a result, patients who are prescribed Isoretinoin are required to participate in a FDA approved risk management program.

Reporting Side Effects to Your Doctor

As with any medication report any side effects, including mild but persistent ones, to your doctor. In some cases, your doctor may adjust your dosage, ask you to stop taking the medication, or try an additional or alternative treatment.

Always speak with your doctor about potential side effects before beginning an acne treatment. Also share a list of other medications, both prescription and OTC, you are taking. 

Should You Take Acne Medication While Pregnant?

A woman’s body undergoes significant changes throughout pregnancy. As a result, skin changes are relatively common. Fortunately, a number of acne treatments are generally considered safe for most pregnant women. These can include:

  • Glycolic acid – A water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) used topically to help exfoliate the skin.
  • Azelaic acidUsed topically to treat acne by killing bacteria that infect skin pores.
  • ClindamycinAn antibiotic medication used to treat bacterial infections, including those that cause acne and skin inflammation.

However, some acne medications are known to cause severe birth defects and other serious side effects. Acne medications that are known to be unsafe during pregnancy include:

  • IsotretinoinBrands names include: Absorica, Accutane, Claravis, Myorisan, and Zenatane.
  • TazaroteneBrand names include: Avage, Fabior, and Tazorac.
  • TetracyclineDerivatives include: doxycycline and minocycline.

Please note: this is not a comprehensive list. You should always consult with your doctor before starting an acne treatment, especially if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. Some medications that are considered generally safe may be harmful to a developing fetus or if used by mothers who are breastfeeding.

How Do Acne Medications Work?

Medications treat acne in a number of different ways. For example, topical treatments can work by:

  • Reducing the amount of oil on your skin
  • Helping your skin heal quicker
  • Treating inflammation
  • Preventing bacterial infections

Likewise, oral medications often have a similar effect on your skin. However, some oral medications, like contraceptives, may be prescribed if acne is a result of hormonal changes. In this case, the medication is indirectly treating acne.

It’s important to understand that not every acne medication, topical or oral, works the same. As a result, it’s not unusual for doctors or dermatologists to prescribe two different medications depending on the type and the severity of your acne.

In these cases, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the potential side effects of both medications. Equally important is informing your doctor or dermatologist about any other medications, both OTC and prescription, that you’re taking. This will help to avoid potential drug interactions.

Save Money on Your Prescription Acne Medications

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Use our online Rx price comparison tool to find the lowest price on your Rx medications. Then, show your ScriptSave WellRx card to your pharmacist when you pick up your medicine.

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