Although rosacea can't be cured, treatment can help keep the symptoms under control.
Long-term treatment is usually necessary, although there may be periods where your symptoms improve and you can stop treatment temporarily.
Treatment choices depend on which type of symptom is most troublesome, but usually involves a combination of self-help measures and medication, and are outlined below.
There are a number of things you can do yourself to help keep the symptoms of rosacea under control, including:
- avoiding things that trigger your symptoms – for example, by using sun cream and covering yourself up if direct sunlight makes your symptoms worse
- taking good care of your skin – for example, by using products suitable for sensitive skin
- using make-up – patches of persistent red skin can be disguised using specially designed camouflage make-up
- keeping your eyelids clean – if rosacea is causing your eyelids to become inflamed (blepharitis)
Treating papules and pustules
If you have round red bumps that rise from your skin (papules) and pus-filled swellings (pustules) caused by rosacea, there are a number of different medications that can be effective.
These can be divided into topical treatments that are applied to the skin, or oral treatments, which are taken by mouth.
Topical medications are usually prescribed first. These include:
- metronidazole cream or gel
- azelaic acid cream or gel
- ivermectin cream
Ivermectin is a relatively new medicine. There's some evidence to suggest it may be more effective and perhaps less irritating to the skin than metronidazole, although it's not currently available on the NHS everywhere and may only be recommended if the other treatments don't work.
You'll usually need to apply these topical treatments once or twice a day, taking care not to get them in your eyes or mouth. It may be several weeks before you notice any significant improvement in your symptoms.
Side effects of these treatments can include a burning or stinging sensation, itchiness and dry skin.
If your symptoms are more severe, an oral antibiotic medication may be recommended as these can help reduce inflammation of the skin.
Antibiotics often used to treat rosacea include tetracycline, oxytetracycline, doxycycline and erythromycin.
These medications are usually taken for 4 to 6 weeks, but longer courses may be necessary if the spots are persistent.
For example, a low-dose doxycycline capsule is available if oral antibiotics need to be taken long term.
Common side effects of these medications include:
Some of the medications used can also make your skin sensitive to sunlight and artificial sources of light, such as sun lamps and sunbeds.
As with the topical treatments mentioned above, these medications usually need to be taken once or twice a day and you may not notice a significant improvement in your symptoms for several weeks.
Isotretinoin is a medicine often used to treat severe acne, but at lower doses it's also occasionally used to treat rosacea.
As isotretinoin is a strong medication that can cause a range of side effects, it can only be prescribed by a specialist in treating skin conditions (dermatologist) and not your GP.
Common side effects of isotretinoin include:
- dryness and cracking of the skin, lips and nostrils
- inflammation of your eyelids (blepharitis) or eyes (conjunctivitis)
- muscle or joint pain
- back pain
- blood in your urine (haematuria)
- mood changes
Isotretinion can also cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy.
Treating facial redness
Treating facial redness and flushing caused by rosacea is generally more difficult than treating papules and pustules caused by the condition.
But as well as the self-help measures mentioned above, there are some medications that can help.
Brimonidine tartrate is a relatively new medication for facial redness caused by rosacea. It comes in the form of a gel that's applied to the face once a day.
The medication works by restricting the widening (dilation) of the blood vessels in your face. Research has shown it can start to have an effect about 30 minutes after it's first used, and this can last for around 12 hours.
Common side effects of brimonidine tartrate include itchiness and a burning sensation where the gel is applied.
Less common side effects can include:
- a dry mouth
- pins and needles
- dry skin
A rebound effect, where flushing becomes worse, has also been reported with this medication.
Alternatively, there are a number of oral medications that may help improve redness caused by rosacea.
- clonidine – a medication that relaxes the blood vessels
- beta-blockers – medications that decrease the activity of the heart
- anxiety medications – medications sometimes used to help calm the person and reduce blushing
It's not clear how effective these medications are at treating redness caused by rosacea, but they may sometimes be prescribed under the supervision of a dermatologist.
Laser and intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment
Redness and visible blood vessels (telangiectasia) can also sometimes be successfully improved with vascular laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment. These treatments may also improve flushing.
A referral to a dermatologist is usually required before having these treatments and they're not usually available on the NHS, so you may need to pay for them privately. Around 2 to 4 treatments may be needed, so the overall cost may be significant.
Laser and IPL machines produce narrow beams of light that are aimed at the visible blood vessels in the skin. The heat from the lasers damages the dilated veins and causes them to shrink so they're no longer visible, with minimal scarring or damage to the surrounding area.
Laser treatment can cause pain, but most people don't need an anaesthetic. Side effects of laser treatment are usually mild and can include:
- crusting of the skin
- swelling and redness of the skin
- blisters (in rare cases)
- infection (in very rare cases)
These side effects usually only last a few days and are rarely permanent.
Treating thickened skin
In some people with rosacea the skin of the nose can become thickened. This is known as rhinophyma.
If you have severe rhinophyma, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist or plastic surgeon to discuss ways the appearance of your skin can be improved.
A number of surgical treatments are available to remove any excess tissue and remodel the nose into a more pleasing shape.
This may be done with a laser, a scalpel or specially designed abrasive instruments using a technique called dermabrasion.
Treating eye problems
If rosacea is affecting your eyes (ocular rosacea), you may require further treatment.
For example, you may need to use lubricating eye drops or ointment if you have dry eyes, or oral antibiotics if you have blepharitis.
If initial treatment isn't effective or you develop any further problems with your eyes, you'll need to be referred to an eye specialist called an ophthalmologist for further assessment and treatment.