Papules are a type of skin lesion. They are bumps on the surface of the skin that are usually 3/8 inch (1 cm) or smaller, and they can be red, brown, purple, or pink, depending on their causes. If papules are scratched or picked, they can burst open and become crusty, itchy, or infected. Papules are a symptom of common skin disorders like acne or rosacea, and they can also be a symptom of a disease like chickenpox.
In people with acne, lesions on the face, neck, chest, back, and upper arms are the result of clogged sebaceous follicles. These follicles, or pores, also produce oil and hair. In cases of acne, the pores become clogged with dead skin cells and bacteria. Acne bumps are usually quite small and concentrated in one area, often giving the skin a rough, sandpaper-like feel.
Papules associated with acne are not to be confused with acne pustules or cysts. Pustules contain pus and are often painful, while these bumps are generally painless unless scratched or picked open, and do not contain pus. Papules usually go away on their own without treatment whereas pustules can progress into more serious, deeper lesions called cysts, which often lead to scarring.
Rosacea sufferers also get bumps on the cheeks, nose, chin, neck, and scalp. Rosacea is often confused with adult acne, but they are quite different conditions. Rosacea sufferers rarely have severely infected lesions like acne sufferers, and rosacea is often characterized by serious reddening of the face when exposed to light, heat, or triggers like spicy foods or alcohol. Although adults may suffer from acne, it is more common in adolescents of all races while rosacea tends to affect adults of northwestern European descent.
Mild acne papules can be treated with over-the counter medications like alcohol, benzoyl peroxide, or salicylic acid. These treatments reduce excess oil in the skin and kill the bacteria that cause more serious lesions. Treatment for severe acne includes cortisone to reduce inflammation or anti-inflammatory antibiotics like tetracycline. Female acne sufferers might also use oral contraceptives to reduce acne outbreaks associated with hormonal changes brought on by menstruation.
While some rosacea is treated with cosmetics to reduce its appearance, prescription medications like tetracycline or topical azelaic acid can be used as well. Rosacea patients can also be asked to keep a diary of triggers that led to reddening or papules such as foods or sun exposure so they can reduce their symptoms by avoiding the triggers.