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Can popping a zit kill you?

Theoretically, yes. So can crossing the street.

Of course, in 20+ years as a family physician I've never seen this happen. I hate to admit it, but I've popped my own zits on quite a few occasions and lived to tell about it. I've even jaywalked a time or two.

How can popping zit kill you? Most people pop zits by squeezing them, which has the potential of pushing germs into the bloodstream. The circulation of blood from parts of the face mixes with the circulation of the brain. Theoretically, this could cause brain infection - not a good thing and potentially lethal.

Though I've never seen a brain infection occur this way, I don't recommend popping zits. However, if I could get a young person to follow good health advice, I'd suggest avoiding things that do kill a lot of people, including teenagers: alcohol, drugs, sex, smoking, gambling, and overeating.

Are there other dangers of popping zits? Here are 5 concerns. The first 4 are quite common, the last less-so.

1. Prolonged healing. I know it feels like if you just popped the offending zit, it would go away. You probably know from personal experience that this isn't the case, at least not for pimples that don't have a large, white head on them. Squeezing a pimple will certainly prolong healing. Not only does your body have to heal the zit, it has to heal the damage you caused your skin by squeezing so hard. Sometimes pricking a ripe, white pimple with a sterile needle will allow the "pus" to drain out - doctors do this at times. If you have a faceful of large zits ask your doctor about whether it is ever wise for you to perform your own surgery.

2. Scarring. The body has several built-in healing processes. The primary process causes very little scarring, and is the way the body normally heals itself. When the body has to work harder at healing a lesion, it enrolls secondary processes which produce more scar tissue. Scar tissue is different than normal skin, with different pigmentation, elasticity, and circulation. Acne scarring may persist for life, so resist the temptation to pop your pimples.

3. Local infection. Although acne itself is not considered a skin infection, if you pop a zit, other germs can get in and cause a real infection. These are usually germs that live happily on the surface of the skin without causing a problem. Once the skin is open, however, they can invade and cause true infection. Staph and strep germs are the most common culprits. If you squeeze a zit and you develop a swollen, red, possibly tender area, you should see your doctor - you may need an antibiotic.

4. Turn small zit into large one. As mentioned, zits (pimples, pustules) are not caused by infection, per se. Rather, certain germs that live in your hair follicles cause a problem by making an acid that is irritating to the skin. Your body tries to fight this acid by making a pimple. When you squeeze a zit, you may actually force the acid deeper into your skin, triggering a larger pimple yet.

5. Auto-innoculate with herpes. If you have a cold sore on your lip and you pop a pimple, you could transfer the herpes germ from your cold sore to the acne area. Then you could end up with cold sores at the pimple site, something you definitely want to avoid. Popping a zit any time is not a good idea, but especially not when you have a cold sore.

Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

Pimple On Lip

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Permission is hereby granted to publish this copyrighted article elsewhere on the web or in print media, in whole or in part, with the stipulation that Dr. Koelker be properly credited as author, and that the material be unaltered with regard to content.

Cynthia J. Koelker MD is a family physician of over twenty years, and holds degrees from MIT, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She is the author of "101 Ways to Save Money on Healthcare."

The Dangers of Popping a Zit

Pimple On Lip