Cystic acne left woman too self-conscious to leave the house – what is the condition?

Jamie Graves says COVID left her suffering from a bout of cystic acne. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jamie Graves says COVID left her suffering from a bout of cystic acne. (Collect/PA Real Life)

A woman has revealed how she avoided leaving the house for weeks and hid her face from her daughter after being struck with cystic acne after suffering from COVID.

Jamie Graves, 42, from Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire was so self-conscious about the breakout on her face she didn't leave home for nearly six weeks.

Having tried several courses of antibiotics, the legal PA's skin finally cleared up after her mum treated her to an £85 skincare bundle after reading about its acne-curing properties.

While she was impacted by acne as a teenager, Graves first started suffering with cystic acne around 10 years ago, believing the pus-filled pimples that form deep under the skin were triggered by hormonal changes in her early 30s.

“I had acne as a teenager, like loads of people do at that age," she says. "It didn’t really bother me and I grew out of it.

“Throughout my adult life, I’ve been quite prone to getting spots here and there, but it was always manageable and nothing that a bit of foundation couldn’t hide.”

Read more: Make-up artists kicks off acne acceptance movement by turning her spots into beautiful stars

Graves admits that she did not even want her daughter to see her bare face. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Graves admits that she didn't even want her daughter to see her bare face. (Collect/PA Real Life)

But in 2012, Graves, who lives with her teenage daughter Freya, 13, says her skin began to get worse.

“I suffered a really bad outbreak across my face that wouldn’t go away," she explains. "I went to the doctor’s and they told me I had cystic acne."

Graves was given antibiotics which helped to calm her skin down.

"Over the last 10 years I’ve only had two bad outbreaks of cystic acne and both times antibiotics prescribed by my GP have done the trick to fix it,” she says.

“My skin has always been my biggest insecurity, but the antibiotics made it manageable.”

While her outbreaks normally cleared up with a course of antibiotics, in January 2022, after testing positive for COVID, the mum-of-one says her usual prescription had no effect.

“I was under the weather for a few days, but the worst side effect I suffered from COVID was another cystic acne outbreak,” she says.

“It was so bad that my skin was red raw and so sore. I had bumps of cysts across my face. I felt like a monster.

“I was prescribed antibiotics, which normally take a couple of weeks to take effect, but after a fortnight there were no improvements. I felt helpless.”

Read more: Model launches #FreeThePimple campaign to encourage people to share photos of their spots

Graves pictured here four weeks after starting the skincare products. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Graves pictured here four weeks after starting the skincare products. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Graves said the outbreak really took its toll on her emotionally.

“My mental health was so low earlier in the year," she explains.

“I hated my face to the point where I didn’t want anyone else to see it.

“I didn’t leave the house for around five or six weeks because I was so embarrassed about my face.”

Graves says she made excuses not to meet friends and worked from home on days when she should have been in the office.

“The only trip outside I would take was to do the school run, but even then, I wouldn’t get out of the car," she adds.

“I did all my food shopping online and would wait for the delivery driver to step back before opening the door, in the hope that they wouldn’t be close enough to my face to see how bad it was.”

Eventually she became so self-conscious that she didn't even want her own daughter to see her face.

“I didn’t want her to see how red and sore it was," she says.

“Even though I knew it would make things worse, I would put make-up on upstairs, so I was covered up in front of her.

"She even caught me doing it at one point and asked me why.

“I didn’t know what to say. I was just at my lowest point and my skin was drastically affecting my confidence.”

Watch: Majority feel like they’re not being true to themselves when they cover up their insecurities

The turning point came at the end of April 2022, when Graves' mum, Susan, 68, offered to buy her a skincare bundle from a firm called Bedew, costing £85.

“My mum could see how badly affected I was by my skin and she said she’d do anything to help me,” Graves explains.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect it to work, because I’d given up hope at that point.

“But I decided to give it a go.”

Adult acne: What causes it and how to prevent it

The mum-of-one would order food online to avoid leaving the house. (Collect/PA Real Life)
The mum-of-one would order food online to avoid leaving the house. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Graves used the products as part of her morning and evening skincare routine and was amazed at how soon she noticed results.

“I noticed a change within about two weeks," she says. "My skin was so much more hydrated, the lumps had started reducing and so had the redness, I was elated.

“At last, something was working and I thought I might be able to have a life again and feel confident enough to go out and just be me.

“When I went back to work my close colleague commented on how much better my skin was looking and could see that it was making a difference to my self-esteem.

“It wasn’t an overnight fix and I have continued taking my antibiotics along with the skincare products, but it gave me the confidence to keep going with it and the results have given me my life back.

“I can’t believe I’m now freely leaving the house whenever I want to and I even joined a work video call the other day completely make-up-free, which is something I never would have done before.”

Her newfound confidence has also helped her to become closer to her daughter.

“My daughter has noticed a such a big improvement in my mood and mental health,” she explains.

“I’m a fun mum again. We do fun things together and I don’t let anything hold me back.

“I still get the odd spot from time to time, but nothing like the cystic acne outbreaks I was getting before.

“This treatment has really changed my life.”

Graves says she is now free to be a fun mum again. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Graves says she is now free to be a fun mum again. (Collect/PA Real Life)

What is cystic acne?

According to Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor, cystic acne is another term for severe acne that causes large, pus-filled, painful spots to develop on the skin.

The spots are known as cysts, and they’re prone to bursting and they can cause permanent scarring.

Cysts are described by the NHS as “the most severe type of spot caused by acne”. They’re large and usually very painful and tender. They look similar to boils and when they burst they can leave open wounds that damage the skin cause scarring.

What causes cystic acne?

The NHS says acne is most commonly linked to the changes in hormone levels during puberty, but can start at any age.

Recent studies have revealed that 40-55% of the total adult population (aged between 20-40) suffer with persistent painful acne and oily skin.

Certain hormones cause the grease-producing glands next to hair follicles in the skin to produce larger amounts of oil (abnormal sebum).

Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor explains that acne occurs when the hair follicles in the skin become blocked with sebum and dead skin cells. If a blocked follicle becomes infected from bacteria on the skin (which is normally harmless), it can develop into a spot.

It still isn't fully understood why some people are more prone to acne than others and why some people have acne severe enough to cause cysts, but it is thought that hormones play a large role.

Another risk factor for acne is a family history of the condition. If your parents or siblings have it, you’re more likely to have it too.

Acne anxiety

While this isn't a recognised condition, many of those living with cystic acne suffer from something known as acne anxiety.

A recent study found that 68% of patients with acne reported that it impacted their social activities, while further research by the British Journal of Dermatology, found that acne sufferers are 63% more likely to develop depression than those without the condition.

How to treat cystic acne

There is a common misconception that acne can be treated by keeping your face clean, but this isn’t the case, according to Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor.

While having a good skincare routine can help, it won’t solve the underlying problem, which is that your skin produces too much sebum.

In the case of cystic acne, treatment can be tricky because the symptoms are so severe.

However, there are some prescription treatments that can help.

If you’re experiencing cystic acne, you should visit your GP.

Additional reporting PA Real Life.