Reality check: Can popping pimples really kill you?

Popping a pimple in the 'danger triangle' of the face could lead to serious health consequences. BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Sometimes it’s hard to resist the urge to attack pimples the old fashioned way – that is, by squeezing them. But it’s a well-known fact that this practice can cause inflammation and scarring.

And according to some dermatologists, depending on where you pop them, there could be serious consequences.

The area of the face that extends from the bridge of the nose down to the upper lip and across to include the corners of the mouth is referred to as the “danger triangle” or the “triangle of death.”

It garners its name from the fact that a system of blood vessels reside in the area and drain in the back of the head, which has a direct link to the brain. An infection in this region could reach the nerve centre and cause a number of complications including vision loss, paralysis, meningitis and even death as CNBC notes.

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“The main repercussions of an improperly popped pimple are scarring, longer duration of that pimple and skin discolouration,” says Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a dermatologist and spokesperson for the Acne and Rosacea Society of Canada. “You can also develop an infection. And although it is rare, you can develop a serious infection from popping one in the danger triangle that could have grave repercussions like paralysis or death.”

But why could tackling a blemish in this specific area lead to such infection?

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For one thing, the nose is one of the body’s first protectors against bacteria because the cilia (tiny hairs) that reside inside act like a filter that trap debris and prevent it from entering the breathing passages and, ultimately, the bloodstream. (Just consider that in 2013, a young girl in Arkansas contracted a brain-eating amoeba that entered her system through her nose while she was swimming at a local water park.)

What’s more, when it comes to surface wounds like a picked pimple, bacteria can easily form in the sore and travel freely around the nose and mouth area, notes Barankin. And because that region is so closely situated to the veins on our face, the bacteria can easily be inhaled or ingested and pose serious risks.

“A serious infection can occur because there is typically some bacteria on either the hands or the skin,” Barankin says. “If there is a particularly virulent or resistant strain, and a pimple is popped, that bacteria can go into the blood stream and travel into the brain or eye. Especially if someone has a suppressed immune system, like someone with HIV or an organ-transplanted patient, the risk of this would be even higher.”

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So, in the end, the proper way to deal with a pimple is to simply leave it alone, though it’s highly unlikely that popping them will hurt you in the long run.

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“The vast majority of the time, popping your pimples will make things worse,” Barankin says. “Your dermatologist can safely resolve the pimple for you with a couple of techniques and give you a great preventative spot treatment that you can use at home.”

As for day-to-day skin upkeep, he advises using a mild cleanser, avoiding over exfoliation, and treating a pimple with a product that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

If the urge to pop is too great, Barankin advises: “At least wash your hands and wipe the area with alcohol before touching it.”

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