Common Skin Problems
Acne – by far the most common skin condition affecting teenagers, read more about acne and how to treat it here.
Athlete’s foot (Tinea pedis) – an infection of the feet with a dermatophyte fungus; these thrive in warm, moist environments. The fungal infection, which is usually mild, occurs most commonly in young men. Symptoms of athlete’s foot are spongy, irritated or peeling skin. Sometimes the skin splits (fissure), has a pungent odour or becomes further infected with bacteria. Wearing tight footwear, not changing socks regularly, sharing towels or being barefoot in communal facilities, such as bathrooms or swimming pools, can all enhance the spread and growth of fungi. Particularly susceptible are those who have poor circulation, sweat a lot or do not produce much fatty acid in their skin. Treatment involves ventilating the area by wedging toes apart, wearing loose-fitting shoes and allowing time without shoes for the feet to air. The application of topical creams containing antifungal agents (i.e. whitfield ointment) kills fungi and some bacteria.
Body odour – while not strictly a ‘skin’ condition, body odour (or B.O.) is a common complaint amongst teenagers. Body odour is caused by the growth of bacteria on the body, particularly on the armpits and groin. The entire body is covered in eccrine glands, which produce sweat made up mostly of water and salt; these act to cool us down when we get too hot. Special apocrine glands in the pubic area and underarms, which produce a unique, oily form of sweat, become active with the onset of puberty. This type of sweat contains nutrients on which the bacteria thrive, so these areas are more prone to body odour.
For most teenagers, body odour can be managed by bathing regularly and wearing fresh, clean clothes. Deodorants on the armpits work by making the sweat here more acidic, this creates a hostile environment in which bacteria cannot survive. Anti-perspirants, on the other hand, block the production of sweat by plugging the ducts between the glands and the skin surface.
Some teenagers and adults suffer from excessive sweating which can be problematic and embarrassing. In these instances, a doctor or dermatologist may be able to recommend preferred deodorant formulations and skin care regimes. In severe cases, medications or surgical treatments may be required; the need for these measures and the various options available are best discussed with a qualified physician.
Cold sores (herpes simplex labialis) – facial lesions or blisters, commonly presenting around the lips and mouth, caused by infection with the type 1 herpes simplex virus (HSV). Following primary infection, the virus remains in the nerve cells beneath the skin in a latent, or resting, state. Triggers such as stress, hormone fluctuations, oral/facial surgery, UV exposure and trauma or other illness can induce recurrence. The virus grows along the nerve fibre into the skin, then subsides again after each attack. The virus is transmitted through direct contact with the saliva of an infected individual and is far more likely to occur through active lesions. Cold sore symptoms can include itching, burning or tingling sensations, followed by the emergence of the characteristic small, red vesicles clumped together. Occasionally, these can be accompanied by fever, pain or swollen lymph nodes. Cold sores usually heal within seven to ten days without treatment. While there is no way to completely eradicate the virus, topical creams containing the antiviral drugs acyclovir or penciclovir can suppress it, to reduce the length and severity of a flare-up, when applied early.
Dry skin (Xeroderma) – skin which flakes, peels or cracks may be the result of insufficient moisture. There are lots of causes of dry skin, including: specific medical conditions; excessive use of make-ups, perfumes or harsh soaps; dehydration or excess sun exposure; certain chemicals or medications; arid environments and excessive washing. By addressing the causes of the dry skin, and applying a basic, fragrance-free moisturiser, most people will see this resolve quickly. Drinking plenty of water (2 litres per day) and avoiding excessive sun or heat exposure will also help your skin maintain its moisture content. In cases where dry skin is ongoing or causes fissures and breaks in the skin, medical advice should be sought.
Eczema – a range of conditions which involve skin inflammation, the most common of these being atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is characterised by an itchy, red rash which most commonly appears on the face and scalp. Teenagers often experience these patches on their elbows and knees, they tend to be dryer and scalier than infant rashes. In many cases, severity reduces with age and atopic dermatitis can completely disappear by adulthood. For more information on symptoms, causes and treatment options, refer to the Atopic Dermatitis article.
Ringworm – an itchy fungal infection of the skin which presents as scaly rings a couple of centimeters wide. Ringworm is contagious and is passed between contact with infected people, pets and personal items (i.e. towels, hairbrushes and clothing). A topical antifungal usually needs to be applied to the affected areas for three or four weeks, continuing after the rash has disappeared. Occasionally ringworm does not respond and a stronger, prescription, topical or oral medication will be required from your doctor. To prevent reinfection: dry yourself thoroughly and keep cool; don’t share personal items; wash linen and clothing; have pets with ringworm treated and wear thongs in communal swimming or bathing areas.
Sunburn – one of the most common skin complaints in teenagers and something most people will experience during their teenage years. Sunburn is the result of excessive exposure of unprotected skin to ultraviolet light (UV, particularly UVB 290-320nm in wavelength), either from the sun or artificial UV sources like tanning booths. For more information, see our section on Sun damage and sunburn.
Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service 2011, ‘Sweating and body odour’, retrieved 29 July 2011, https://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetailsKids.aspx?p=335&np=289&id=3049.
DermNet NZ 2009, ‘Athlete’s foot’, retrieved 6 October 2010, http://dermnetnz.org/fungal/athletes-foot.html.
DermNet NZ, 2010, ‘Herpes Simplex’, retrieved 6 October 2010, http://www.dermnetnz.org/viral/herpes-simplex.html.