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Topical Acne Medications Could Lead to Life-Threatening Allergic Reactions in Some Consumers

Jul 31, 2014

Many consumers use products containing salicyclic acid or benzoyl peroxide to treat acne and blemishes, according to Cleveland Clinic. What they may not realize, however, is that these topical acne medications have caused serious, potentially life-threatening reactions in some users.

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned about the risk of rare but serious and potentially fatal allergic reactions or severe irritation with products containing salicyclic acid or benzoyl peroxide. The agency issued the warning after receiving 131 reports of serious reactions associated with the use of gels, lotions, facial washes cleansing pads, toners and facial scrubs with these ingredients. The reports were submitted by manufacturers and consumers between 1969 and 2013. The hypersensitivity reactions occurred in people between the ages of 11 to 78 years.

Severe allergy symptoms occurred in forty percent of the reported reactions; they include throat tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing, low blood pressure, fainting and collapse. Swelling of the eyes, face and lips were also reported. Additionally, some consumers experienced isolated instances of hives or itching of the face and body, even in areas where the product was not applied, the FDA said.

It took between minutes and 24 hours for the reactions to appear in 42 percent of the reported cases. There have been no reports of death, but hospitalization was required in 44 percent of people with severe reactions.

According to Cleveland Clinic, salicyclic acid is a willow tree bark derivative that reduces swelling and redness and helps clear blocked pores to get rid of pimples. Because it can soften dry, scaly or thickened skin, it is also used to treat other skin conditions as well. Benzoyl peroxide removes bacteria from the skin. It is an antibiotic as well as a bleaching agenct, and can be found in other products such as hair dye.

Carol Slover, MD, who was not involved in the FDA warning, says that these two products can irritate the skin and cause redness, itching, burning, dryness, peeling and slight swelling. The FDA warning does not apply to these side effects, and is only truly concerned with serious hypersensitivity reactions.

“Since all acne medications can cause irritation to the skin, consumers need to determine whether they are seeing a side effect or a serious allergic reaction.” Slover said to Cleveland Clinic. She advises consumers to approach new over-the-counter acne medications slowly, and begin by testing a small area to see if a reaction occurs in the next few days. Slover says to stop using the product if minor irritation occurs and to seek medical attention immediately if a severe allergic reaction occurs.

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