Therapeutic considerations for severe nodular acne

Am J Clin Dermatol. 2011 Feb 1;12(1):7-14. doi: 10.2165/11532280-000000000-00000.


Severe nodular acne, defined as grade 4 or 5 acne on the Investigator's Static Global Assessment scale, is a skin condition characterized by intense erythema, inflammation, nodules, cysts, and scarring. Both the well known risk of physical scarring and the more recent recognition that acne can be a chronic, psychologically distressing disease with significant adverse effects on a patient's quality of life, have prompted earlier, more aggressive treatment with more effective medications, in the hope of preventing progression to more severe, nodular forms of the disease. Oral antibacterials, primarily tetracyclines, have long been the first-line therapy for severe nodular acne, which frequently remained refractory to therapy. However, concerns of antibacterial adverse effects, patient adherence, and antimicrobial resistance prompted the search for alternate therapies and combinations thereof in order to target the multifactorial pathogenesis of the disease. Isotretinoin, an oral retinoid introduced in 1982, has since become the gold standard therapy in severe acne and has revolutionized its treatment. Several adjunctive agents exist. Oral antibacterials are indicated as an alternative for patients with severe acne who cannot tolerate oral retinoids, or for whom a contraindication exists. In order to prevent bacterial resistance, antibacterials should always be used in combination with benzoyl peroxide, a nonantibiotic antimicrobial agent with anti-inflammatory activity. Topical retinoids are often added to this regimen. In women, hormonal agents, which include oral contraceptives, spironolactone, and oral corticosteroids, and, in Europe, cyproterone acetate, may be used as monotherapy or concomitantly with isotretinoin. For rapid treatment of inflammatory nodules, intralesional corticosteroids are effective. These treatment modalities have been studied, refined, and combined in novel ways in order to target the multifactorial pathogenesis of the disease, and in this article we review each of their roles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / complications
  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Administration, Oral
  • Cicatrix / etiology
  • Cicatrix / prevention & control*
  • Dermatologic Agents / administration & dosage
  • Dermatologic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Quality of Life
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Dermatologic Agents