At last, the all-clear for problem skin

Creams, antibiotics, diet changes - sometimes it seems as if nothing works to cure the curse of acne. But a new light therapy is now producing rapid and lasting results.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Tracy Fahey has suffered with acne for more than 10 years. Like many others with the condition, she has tried a range of treatments, from creams to antibiotics as well as changes to her diet, but without any lasting success.

Tracy Fahey has suffered with acne for more than 10 years. Like many others with the condition, she has tried a range of treatments, from creams to antibiotics as well as changes to her diet, but without any lasting success.

Then, on the eve of her wedding 27-year-old Tracy abandoned the traditional antibiotic treatments and opted for a new light therapy developed at Hammersmith hospital. So good and lasting are the results, she has not needed treatment for six months.

Acne is one of the commonest of diseases and by a cruel irony, it is most likely to strike during adolescence, a time of life when awareness of body image is at its most painfully vulnerable. Around 85 per cent of adolescents have acne at some time, but it can persist in some sufferers well into maturity, even into their eighties. Although seven out of 10 cases clear up within a few years, one in 20 women still have acne when they reach 40. Acne can also start in adult life, usually in the late twenties or thirties, and increasingly in women it is often in response to work-related stress.

Acne is an inflammatory skin disease that affects the pores of the skin and the oil glands attached to them. It is triggered by an abnormal response of the skin to normal levels of the male hormone testosterone, which circulates in the blood of both men and women. Hormones such as testosterone are the body's messengers; one of their roles is to tell the sebaceous glands in the skin to produce an oily compound, sebum. In acne sufferers, the glands begin over-producing, which leads to blockages and other problems.

Oil can solidify in the pore or hair channel, forming a blackhead. When the blockage becomes complete, the oil builds up around the hair and hair roots and becomes infected with a bacterium normally found on the skin. The bacterium breaks down the oil into the highly inflammatory chemicals that are responsible for the classic redness, pus formation and pain of the spot. If the inflammation is severe or if the spot is squeezed, the pus can be driven deep into the skin rather than staying on the surface and can lead to cysts and scars.

Although the factors that trigger the symptoms of acne are known, the cause of the condition itself and the reasons why some people suffer from it while others with similar levels of testosterone do not, is not completely understood. One theory is that acne is some kind of immunological disease involving an over-reaction by the immune system. Studies at Hammersmith Hospital by Dr Tony Chu have shown that patients with acne mount a stronger immune system response to bacteria within the skin that do patients without acne.

If acne is caused by such an immune system response, this may help explain why no one treatment is totally effective in combating it. Today, sufferers are faced with a bewildering range of therapies, including creams, gels, pills, lotions, antibiotics and vitamins, as well as scores of alternative and homoeopathic herbal remedies. Some drugs are available over the counter, while others can be obtained only on prescription. They may be designed for mild, moderate or severe conditions.

For sufferers like Tracy, a teacher, the main need is for long-lasting relief. "I started getting acne when I was 15, my mid-teenage years. When you are a teenager you are happy to use anything that takes away the spots. At one point I tried the contraceptive pill for its hormonal effects, and I tried diet changes too, but that didn't really work," she says.

"I took antibiotics but I had to stop because they were affecting my stomach and making me sick. I was about to get married at the time and I was looking around to find another treatment because I was worried my skin would look really bad on the day.

"I heard about the light therapy at the Hammersmith and used it for the month before the wedding and it made a huge difference. First I noticed that the marks from the old spots were going, and then the numbers of new spots got less until it reached the point where hardly any were appearing. I have now reached the stage where I haven't had to use it since January this year because I am perfectly happy with the way my skin is now."

It was Dr Chu, consultant dermatologist at the Hammersmith, who discovered that regular sessions with light therapy using a combination of blue and red light can reduce the number of visible spots in mild to moderate acne.

The blue light works by killing off the bacteria in the skin that trigger the acne symptoms, while the red light is thought to help heal the scars and aid recovery of the damaged skin tissue. The results of clinical trials show that the light therapy led to an average improvement of 76 per cent in the number of visible spots after three months of treatment.

"As more people become antibiotic resistant, this new treatment looks set to help thousands of acne sufferers," Dr Chu explains. "The combination of red and blue light attacks the acne and heals the skin, through their anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory actions, and works without any significant side-effects," he added.

Researchers are now looking at using the same therapy to deal with more severe cases of acne.