Rosacea (acne rosacea) is a chronic inflammatory disorder characterized by facial flushing, telangiectasias, erythema, papules, pustules, and, in severe cases, rhinophyma. Diagnosis is based on the characteristic appearance and history. Treatment depends on severity and includes topical metronidazole, topical and oral antibiotics, rarely isotretinoin, and, for severe rhinophyma, surgery.
Rosacea most commonly affects patients aged 30 to 50 with fair complexions, most notably those of Irish and Northern European descent, but it affects and is probably under-recognized in darker-skinned patients.
The etiology is unknown, although associations with abnormal vasomotor control, impaired facial venous drainage, an increase in follicle mites (Demodex folliculorum), and Helicobacter pylori infection have been proposed. People with rosacea may have elevated levels of small antimicrobial peptides that are part of the body's natural defense system. People with rosacea may also have higher than normal levels of cathelicidin as well as another group of enzymes called stratum corneum tryptic enzymes.
Symptoms and Signs
Rosacea is limited to the face and scalp and manifests in 4 phases:
In the pre-rosacea phase, patients describe embarrassing flushing and blushing, often accompanied by uncomfortable stinging. Common reported triggers for these flares include sun exposure, emotional stress, cold or hot weather, alcohol, spicy foods, exercise, wind, cosmetics, and hot baths or hot drinks. These symptoms persist throughout other phases of the disorder.
In the vascular phase, patients develop facial erythema and edema with multiple telangiectases, possibly as a result of persistent vasomotor instability.
An inflammatory phase often follows, in which sterile papules and pustules (leading to the designation of rosacea as adult acne) develop.
The late phase (developing in some patients), is characterized by coarse tissue hyperplasia of the cheeks and nose (rhinophyma) caused by tissue inflammation, collagen deposition, and sebaceous gland hyperplasia.
The phases of rosacea are usually sequential. Some patients go directly into the inflammatory stage, bypassing the earlier stages. Treatment may cause rosacea to return to an earlier stage. Progression to the late stage is not inevitable.
Ocular rosacea often accompanies facial rosacea and manifests as some combination of blepharoconjunctivitis, iritis, scleritis, and keratitis, causing itching, foreign body sensation, erythema, and edema of the eye.
Diagnosis is based on the characteristic appearance; there are no specific diagnostic tests. The age of onset and absence of comedones help distinguish rosacea from acne. Differential diagnosis includes acne vulgaris, SLE, sarcoidosis, photodermatitis, drug eruptions (particularly caused by iodides and bromides), granulomas of the skin, and perioral dermatitis.
Primary initial treatment of rosacea involves avoidance of triggers (including use of sunscreen). Antibiotics may be used for inflammatory disease. The objective of treatment is control of symptoms, not cure.
Metronidazole cream 1%, lotion (0.75%), or gel (0.75%) and azelaic acid 20% cream, applied bid, are equally effective; 2.5% benzoyl peroxide in any form (eg, gel, lotion, cream), applied once/day or bid, can be added for improved control. Less effective alternatives include sodium sulfacetamide 10%/sulfur 5% lotion; clindamycin 1% solution, gel, or lotion; and erythromycin 2% solution, all applied bid. Many patients require indefinite treatment for long-term control.
Oral antibiotics are indicated for patients with multiple papules or pustules and for those with ocular rosacea; options include tetracycline 250 to 500 mg bid, doxycycline 50 to 100 mg bid, minocycline 50 to 100 mg bid, and erythromycin 250 to 500 mg bid. Dose should be reduced to the lowest one that controls symptoms once a beneficial response is achieved. Recalcitrant cases may respond to oral isotretinoin. Subantimicrobial doses of doxycycline are effective for acne and rosacea.
Techniques for treatment of rhinophyma include dermabrasion and tissue excision; cosmetic results are good.
Last full review/revision February 2013 by Karen McKoy, MD, MPH
Content last modified March 2013