6 common skin conditions in teens

Teenage years can be filled with lots of exciting new things — a driver’s license, new social activities, maybe even a first job. It can also bring changes to the skin. You may have noticed your teen’s skin is now prone to all sorts of breakouts, rashes, patches and even warts. And some of these skin conditions, such as acne, may also affect a teenager’s self-esteem.1

How can you help your teenager navigate these common skin issues? It may help to learn what causes them — and the treatments that can help manage or heal the issues they may be facing.

What causes teenage acne?

“Acne is the most common skin concern in this age group,” says David Li, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Boston and founder of Boston Derm Advocate, a site that scientifically reviews skin products. Roughly 85% of people ages 12 to 24 experience at least minor acne.2

During puberty, hormones trigger the oil-producing glands to make more oil. That can clog up pores and cause bacteria to multiply. The result may be red, irritated and inflamed skin, and blackheads, pimples and sometimes cysts.3

How to handle teen acne

Medications may help, but Dr. Li suggests that teens be careful about what they’re using on their skin. “For teens, less is often more,” he says.

Try to avoid layering on different products, which can interact with one another, he explains. “For instance, using exfoliating agents like salicylic acid and glycolic acid simultaneously can lead to excessive dryness and irritation,” he says.

If breakouts are bothering your teen, reach out to their provider. Their provider can suggest a skin care routine or over-the-counter (OTC) medications to try. For severe acne, they may recommend going to a dermatologist to assess the skin and may prescribe medications, including antibiotics.4

What causes cold sores?

These painful blisters are caused by a type of herpes virus. They usually appear around the mouth, or on the lips. The virus that causes cold sores is contagious and can be spread by kissing someone, or sharing a towel, drinking glasses or utensils. The virus can lie dormant and appear when a teen is stressed, for females, when they are having their period, during an infection like a cold or even with exposure to sunlight.5, 6

How to handle cold sores

Cold sores can take 1 to 2 weeks to go away. There are some self-care tips to help them heal and reduce pain.7

  • Clean items that have come in contact with your cold sore
  • Find ways to relieve stress
  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night

If they don’t go away on their own, call a doctor.6 For some people, it’s recommended you see a dermatologist sooner if you:

  • Have eczema
  • Develop painful or several cold sores
  • Are immunocompromised

What causes tinea versicolor?

This is a yeast infection that often crops up during the warmer months, explains Dr. Li. It’s common in teens, thanks again to the overly active oil glands on their skin, he adds.

Tinea versicolor shows up as oval-shaped, light- or dark-colored patches of skin anywhere on the body, but more often on the upper chest and shoulders, Dr. Li notes. These patches may be scaly or itchy, but they’re not harmful.

How to handle tinea versicolor

Usually an OTC antifungal lotion or shampoo can keep these yeast infections under control. Teens will also have to protect their skin from the sun until the patches regain their normal color.8 You may want to call your provider if the patches come back often.

What causes water warts?

This wart-like rash (also known as molloscum contagiosum) is caused by a virus. It produces tiny smooth bumps that may have a small dent in the center and may get bigger over time.  They can develop almost anywhere on the body. They’re not usually painful, but they may itch or get infected if you scratch or pick at them — or they may become red and/or swollen.9

The rash is also contagious and can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, or through bedding, towels, clothes and even athletic equipment. If a teen has warts on their genital area and has sex, their partner can develop it too.9

How to handle water warts

The rash usually goes away fully within 6 to 12 months. But it can sometimes last more than a year, notes Dr. Li. Typically, it’s left untreated, but sometimes a dermatologist will freeze or scrape it off. In the meantime, your teen needs to cover the bumps with a watertight bandage and/or clothes to avoid spreading the virus. They should also avoid shaving over or scratching them.9

What causes warts?

Warts are caused by different strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), explains Dr. Li. Most warts appear on the hands, face and feet, and they can be raised or flat. Teens can pick up the virus from close contact with someone with warts, or from a towel, bathmat or shower floor that someone with warts also touched.10

Then there are sexually transmitted HPV infections that produce warts. “Warts can also arise in the genitals in teenagers who are sexually active, and this may not be obvious to parents,” Dr. Li says. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and many older teens and young adults get the infection.11 And since some strains of HPV can cause cancer, it's recommended that parents discuss the HPV vaccine with their teen's provider.

How to handle warts

Many warts go away on their own. OTC medications may help the skin on warts to flake off. (Don’t use these medications on your face or genitals.) Talk to a dermatologist about stronger treatments, such as prescription medications, cryotherapy that freezes the warts, electrosurgery that burns the warts, or laser surgery.10  

What causes atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema. The exact causes of eczema remain a mystery to experts, but it is generally believed to be a combination of genetic and external environmental factors.12

What is known is, kids typically develop eczema early on in childhood, but teens hitting puberty can develop it too.2 Usually teens with allergies or asthma develop this scaly, itchy, red rash.12 Temperature changes, stress, fragrances and overly hot water can make it worse.

How to handle atopic dermatitis

If you or your teen suspect they have eczema, see a provider. A provider can recommend at-home treatments that control the rash. That may include using OTC moisturizers and creams to ease the itch, or other forms of prescription medications or therapies. Reducing stress and taking shorter showers to prevent flares can also help. Discover ways to get eczema relief.

Because many of these skin conditions can sometimes be painful or feel private, it’s important to have an open line of communication between you and your teen, notes Dr. Li. Seeing a provider is also helpful. Your teen can talk about their concerns, as well as learn about how to perform skin checks.

Encourage them to talk to you or a provider if they notice anything off about their skin. Empowering your teen to take charge of their health at an early age may help them be an active participant in their health care for life. 

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