Most people get pimples as teenagers. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, some 85 percent of all teens experience acne each year, so it's almost a right of passage into adulthood. Most cases of acne resolve with either over-the-counter treatments or prescriptions from a dermatologist. But if you're a woman who suddenly gains weight and starts developing acne, you might have a more serious health condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Acne results when the body's hormones signal the sebaceous glands to produce too much sebum, the oil that keeps the skin moist. This oil, when present in large quantities in the skin, can form plugs in minute hair follicles and pores, causing blockages that lead to pimple eruptions. In addition, overly oily skin encourages bacteria to proliferate, which then causes inflammation and infection in affected pores.
PCOS results when a woman's ovaries fill up with cysts, or fluid-filled sacs. Along with acne and weight gain, symptoms of PCOS include irregular or absent menstrual cycles, infertility, hair growth on the face and chest, thinning hair or male-pattern baldness and sleep apnea. A hormonal imbalance, in which the body produces too many androgen-type hormones, causes the various symptoms seen in PCOS.
There's no cure for PCOS, but you can control symptoms by eating well and losing weight. Women who don't want to become pregnant also might consider birth control pills, which help to curb acne and other symptoms of PCOS, including facial hair and irregular menstrual cycles. Some physicians prescribe the diabetes medication metformin for women with PCOS; metformin can help you lose weight, lower your androgen production and control your blood sugar.
Women who have acne, weight gain and other symptoms that potentially could indicate PCOS should consider seeing a physician to determine whether they should undergo further testing for that medical condition. Of course, not everyone who gains weight and develops acne has PCOS; in some cases, simply eating too much of the wrong foods might contribute to both acne and weight gain.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, some researchers believe that overconsumption of refined carbohydrates, such as those found in breads, pastries, pasta and other foods common in the Western diet, might contribute to acne. Of course, overconsumption of food potentially could lead to weight gain as well. Not enough research has been done, but several small studies indicate that a balanced diet containing so-called low glycemic index carbohydrates along with plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean meats could help curb acne.