Pimple Pus: What It Is, How to Treat and Prevent (2023)

Everyone gets pimples at some point in their lives. There are many different types of acne pimples.

All pimples result from clogged pores, but only inflammatory pimples emit the most noticeable pus.

Pus is a result of oil, bacteria, and other materials that get clogged deep within your pores and your body’s natural defense response to these substances.

Read on to learn more about pimple pus, what causes it, and how you can treat and prevent inflammatory acne pimples.

Pimple pus is made from sebum (oil) that gets trapped in your pores, along with a combination of dead skin cells, debris (such as makeup), and bacteria.

When you have inflammatory acne lesions (such as pustules, papules, nodules, and cysts), your immune system activates in this area, resulting in noticeable pus.

Acne pustules have a whitish fluid inside them. As the inflammation improves, the pustules will also improve and go down.

Pimples with pus appear from both inflammation and as an immune response to the clogged substances in your pores. Pus only occurs in inflammatory acne.

Noninflammatory acne (like blackheads and whiteheads) also involve clogged pores, but the resulting comedones are filled with hardened oil and dead skin cells, not pus.

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However, it’s possible to irritate noninflammatory acne from picking at it so that it becomes inflamed and filled with pus.

Pus-filled inflammatory acne can include the following:

  • Cysts. These large, painful masses develop the deepest underneath your pores, where the pus doesn’t rise to the surface.
  • Nodules. Like cysts, these pus-filled pimples occur beneath the surface of the skin.
  • Papules. These small, red pimples develop at the surface of your skin.
  • Pustules. These pus-filled acne lesions are similar in appearance to papules, but they’re much larger.

When treated, pus-filled pimples will start to dissipate on their own. You may notice the pus disappears first, then the redness and overall acne lesions lessen.

Above all else, you must resist the urge to pop or squeeze out the pus. Picking at acne can cause the inflammation to worsen.

Don’t pop or squeeze pus-filled pimples

You can cause the bacteria to spread and the inflammation to worsen.

Over-the-counter treatments

You can try using the following over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for pus-filled pimples.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide helps kill bacteria in your pores that can lead to pimples with pus. It’s available as a topical gel (for spot treatment) and as a face and body wash.

Benzoyl peroxide can inactivate certain prescription retinoids if used at the same time, and it may be irritating to the skin. If you get irritated with this medication, you can decrease the frequency of its use, including how long you leave it on the skin before washing off.

NOTE: Be careful when using benzoyl peroxide. It can can bleach fabrics, including clothing and towels.

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Salicylic acid

You can find salicylic acid in spot treatments, face washes, and toners. It works by removing dead skin cells at the skin’s surface so they don’t clog pores. It can be irritating to the skin.

Retinoids

Retinoids are typically the first-line medication used for all forms of acne, especially acne on the face.

In recent years, adapalene 0.1 percent gel (Differin) has become available OTC. You must use it regularly for at least 3 months before you see effects.

Apply a pea-sized amount every other night in the beginning. Spread it to the areas where you’re prone to get acne. This will help prevent new acne from forming. It’s not meant to spot-treat current acne.

When using retinoids, you may become more sensitive to the sun and experience some dryness. A daily moisturizer with an SPF can help.

Prescription medications

Some people may be able to treat their acne with OTC medications, such as the topical retinoid Differin or benzoyl peroxide.

However, other people may benefit from a consult with their primary care doctor or dermatologist to determine what prescription medications would be best for them.

Prescription medications for acne can be both oral and topical. Your specific prescriptions will depend on your type of acne, including the location and severity of your acne.

Prescription medications include:

Antibiotics

The bacterium P. acnes is known to be involved in forming pus-filled pimples. Your dermatologist may prescribe a round of antibiotics if they suspect this to be the case.

Your dermatologist may prescribe topical antibiotics instead. You can use these for much longer.

Antibiotics in dermatology are widely used for their anti-inflammatory effects, in addition to their ability to suppress P. acnes growth.

Dermatologists believe that if you’re using oral or topical antibiotics, you should be using benzoyl peroxide alongside it to prevent P. acnes resistance to the antibiotic.

Oral antibiotics are also not meant to be used long term. Rather, they’re generally used as a temporary measure to allow time for topical medications to start working.

Birth control

Some women can benefit from taking oral contraceptives, especially if acne breakouts are more common around menstruation.

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There are several Food and Drug Administration approved combination oral contraceptives that are used specifically for acne.

Some studies suggest birth control is just as effective as antibiotics in treating acne. Discuss this line of treatment with your primary care doctor or OB-GYN.

Isotretinoin

Like retinoids, this oral medication is a vitamin A derivative. Isotretinoin is the closest thing to a cure that dermatologists have for acne.

Doctors often use isotretinoin in patients with:

  • acne that doesn’t respond to traditional acne medications
  • acne that produces scarring
  • severe nodular cystic acne

Spironolactone

Commonly used as a blood pressure and heart failure medication, this anti-androgen medication is also used in dermatology as an off-label acne treatment. It’s only used in women.

Home remedies

Some research suggests that certain home remedies can help acne, but more studies are needed before these are considered viable treatment options.

If you’re curious about alternative treatments, talk to a dermatologist about the following home remedies before starting them:

  • fish oil
  • lavender oil
  • probiotics
  • tea tree oil
  • zinc supplements

While certain risk factors, such as genes and hormones, can play a role in pimple formation, there are steps you can take to minimize their occurrence. Consider the following do’s and don’ts.

DO:

  • Wash your face once a day, and only use oil-free, noncomedogenic products on your face.
  • Follow each cleansing session with an oil-free, noncomedogenic moisturizer with SPF in it. If you’re on a topical antibiotic such as clindamycin, then apply this first before using your moisturizer.
  • Wear sunscreen daily, especially when using retinoids.
  • Choose oil-free, noncomedogenic makeup.
  • Apply spot treatment as necessary.
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DON’T:

  • Scrub your skin when washing it.
  • Skip out on moisturizer. Doing so can dry out your face and cause your oil glands to produce even more sebum.
  • Touch your face. Rubbing your skin can clog pores.
  • Attempt to “dry out” pimples in the sun. This can overdry your skin and also increase your risk for sunburn and skin cancer.
  • Use toothpaste as a spot treatment.
  • Pop your pimples or pick at your skin.
  • Overuse spot treatment or toner. These can dry out your skin.
  • Use alcohol-based products.

It can take a new skin care product several weeks to take full effect.

If you don’t see any improvements in pus-filled pimples after a couple of months, you may consider seeing a dermatologist for help. They may recommend a prescription-strength formula.

Also consider seeing a medical professional if you have widespread cystic acne. You might need an antibiotic to help get rid of this type of breakout.

Pimple pus is a natural substance seen in acne breakouts, but you don’t have to put up with it forever. By practicing good skin care habits combined with OTC acne medication as needed, you can help reduce pimples and pus overall.

If OTC treatments fail to work, see a dermatologist. They can recommend treatments and prescribe oral and topical medications.

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FAQs

How do you treat a pimple with pus? ›

Place warm compresses on the pimple: Gently place a clean, warm, wet washcloth on the area for about 10 minutes, several times a day. But make sure the washcloth isn't too hot. The warm washcloth helps pus dissolve or rise to the surface. Use topical treatments: Benzoyl peroxide products kill bacteria.

What does it mean when a pimple has a lot of pus? ›

Cystic acne is a type of inflammatory acne that causes painful, pus-filled pimples to form deep under the skin. Acne occurs when oil and dead skin cells clog skin pores. With cystic acne, bacteria also gets into the pores, causing swelling or inflammation. Cystic acne is the most severe type of acne.

What happens if you don't remove pus from pimple? ›

That can cause the pimple to become more red, inflamed, swollen and infected, and may even lead to permanent scarring. "It's best to let a pimple run through its life span," Rice says. Left alone, a blemish will heal itself in 3 to 7 days.

How long does a pimple with pus last? ›

Pimples usually last between three and seven days. Most pimples go away on their own, but it may take some time. Deep pimples (pimples under your skin with no head that may feel hard to the touch) may take a few weeks to go away, if not longer.

What is pus caused by? ›

Pus is the result of the body's natural immune system automatically responding to an infection, usually caused by bacteria or fungi. Leukocytes, or white blood cells, are produced in the marrow of bones. They attack the organisms that cause infection.

How do you get rid of pus without popping a pimple? ›

Better than popping
  1. Go to your dermatologist for an extraction. A dermatologist can remove a pimple using special tools in a sterile environment. ...
  2. Apply a hot compress. A hot compress can soothe the pain of a pimple that's inflamed. ...
  3. Use an over-the-counter spot treatment. ...
  4. Try an at-home spot treatment.
Feb 22, 2019

Should you squeeze pus out? ›

Do not squeeze the pus out of the abscess yourself, because this can easily spread the bacteria to other areas of your skin. If you use tissues to wipe any pus away from your abscess, dispose of them straight away to avoid germs spreading. Wash your hands after you've disposed of the tissues.

Is it OK to pop pimples with pus? ›

It's tempting, but popping or squeezing a pimple won't necessarily get rid of the problem. Squeezing can push bacteria and pus deeper into the skin, which might cause more swelling and redness. Squeezing also can lead to scabs and might leave you with permanent pits or scars.

Is it better to pop a pus pimple or leave it? ›

Although it might feel good to pop a pimple, dermatologists advise against it. Popping a pimple can cause infection and scarring, and it may make the pimple more inflamed and noticeable. It also delays the natural healing process. Due to this, it is usually best to leave pimples alone.

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