Accutane: A last resort risking serious side effects

Michaela Ravasio

After “Julia” spent two years unsuccessfully experimenting with several different acne treatments, she decided to try Accutane, a powerful medication for severe acne.

Accutane is taken in the form of a pill and uses Vitamin A to suppress gland activities that would otherwise cause oil production and breakouts, according to David Laub, a dermatologist who specializes in medical and aesthetic acne.

However, Accutane can be accompanied by serious side effects, including severe emotional issues for some.

According to Laub, possible physical side effects of Accutane include dry skin, dry lips, headaches, extra sensitivity to sunlight, muscle aches, and birth defects if impregnated while on the drug.

Four months into her treatment, Julia said she found herself suffering from severe depression.

“I hit rock bottom,” said Julia, a senior who wished to remain anonymous. “I always felt alone even when other people were around. I over thought everything and was really nervous all the time.”

Going against her doctors’ recommendation to avoid the medicine, Julia said she decided to take Accutane after no other prescription drugs cured her acne.

“My dermatologist warned me about all these crazy side effects,” Julia said. “I was desperate for something that worked.”

Julia said she had to stop using Accutane four months into what would have been a six- month treatment because her depression was so unbearable.

“It really messed me up—I had some crazy thoughts,” Julia said. “It was like I didn’t know how to be happy anymore.”

Julia said that returning to her normal state of mind after her time on Accutane was a year- long process that included therapy and anti- depressants.

Though Accutane did clear Julia’s acne, she said that the process was not worth the mental side effects.

Laub said it has not been directly proven that Accutane causes depression.

“The general consensus is that it isn’t causation but that there is some association,” Laub said. “With teenagers, periods of depression can occur just from being overwhelmed with school or other things they have going on.”

Due to the potential severity of the side effects, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] now requires all Accutane patients to participate in the IPLEDGE Program, a monthly survey aimed to monitor patient’s compliance with the drug’s requirements.

According to Laub, these include monthly blood tests, and use of contraceptives for females. If these requirements are not being met, then the patient will no longer receive the drug. Laub said that practicing abstinence is highly encouraged for females on Accutane. He said that such precautions like this are taken because Accutane can cause severe birth defects if the user gets pregnant during the treatment period.

“We tell our patients that if they are sexually active, they have to show proof they are on some kind of birth control, and condom use as well,” Laub said. “We also recommend female patients to meet with their gynecologist prior to starting the drug to make sure they clearlyunderstand all the forms of contraception.”

“Lisa,” an anonymous junior, said that though she was abstinent during her time on Accutane, her doctor still prescribed her birth control as a precaution.

“The whole process made me really paranoid,” Lisa said. “It is so important that you don’t get pregnant on the pill that sometimes I second guessed myself, even if I wasn’t sexually active.”

Some users experienced no serious side effects while on the drug.

“Thomas,” a senior who wished to remain anonymous, said that the his experience on Accutane was a generally positive one.

“As far as I know, I was 100 percent normal while I was on it,” Thomas said. “It didn’t affect any relationships with my friends or family.”

After Thomas finished his six-month treatment on the drug, his acne was completely cured.

“I was a really sensitive little kid, and all of my friends would hassle me about my acne, so I would think about it all the time,” Thomas said. “I’m a lot more confident now.”

Lisa said she suffered from acne in her late middle school years before taking Accutane.

“I tried everything to control it, tons of over-the-counter products, but they just gave me a bunch of things that didn’t help,” Lisa said. “Accutane is a drug that is known to be everyone’s last resort, and it was like that for me too.”

Lisa said in her first weeks on Accutane, her oily skin and blackheads completely cleared up, and by the third month of treatment, her cystic pimples were gone as well.

“After that my skin was totally clear, and I didn’t have a single pimple,” Lisa said. “It felt so good getting so many compliments for having clear skin, and I didn’t have to wear all the makeup I did before.”

Lisa said she only suffered from a mild case of dry skin while she was on it, and was not affected psychologically.

Though Lisa’s acne at first cleared entirely, she said she is starting to develop blackheads and other acne again— four and a half months after her treatment ended.

“I’m scared because I don’t want to have to go through that whole process again,” Lisa said. “But I would definitely go on it again if I need to, if it’s worth it. Because it worked for me the first time, I know it’ll work for me again.”