Accutane: A series of bad side effects

Mia Starkenburg

 I jolted awake. It was the middle of the night, and my eyes opened to complete darkness. I rubbed my eyes. Nothing changed. No vague shadows, no ominous figures, and no shine on my mirror. I lost my night vision entirely, and I freaked out. 

   I quickly got out of bed, stumbled over the piles of laundry, and reached for my lamp. After feeling for the little switch, I heard the click of the lightbulb flickering on. Finally, the outline of my room took shape. Looking back towards my bed, I saw the pills on my nightstand… a shudder ran through me.

    For the past four months, I had been taking the drug isotretinoin, more widely known as Accutane, in hopes of getting rid of my severe cystic acne. 

   I took Accutane twice a day, morning and night. A pill that took three seconds to swallow, consumed my entire day. 

Blood tests and pregnancy

   While using Accutane, getting blood tests can determine all success. You see, isotretinoin has the potential to severely damage your liver. 

   So, every month it became a routine. My mom would drive me to the lab, they’d stick a needle in my arm, and my blood would ship to the doctor’s office. After, we’d get Starbucks and I would head right back to school. 

    Taking my pill became a constant reminder of what not to do that day. 

   “Isotretinoin can cause severe birth defects, miscarriages, and preterm births.” On Accutane, you cannot get pregnant. There’s no room for mistakes. 

   iPledge is a company committed to preventing pregnancy while on isotretinoin. Before I got my pills from the pharmacy, I was required (by my dermatologist and the government) to take a brief quiz issued by iPledge. It included questions that asked about my side effects, and most importantly pregnancy. 

   But this was the catch, if I got one question wrong, I wouldn’t receive my pills. 

Side Effects

   In the first few months of the medication, it worked wonders. My skin never looked better. But as I continued, the side effects and guidelines were starting to become unbearable. 

   Dry skin was the first side effect to take over my body. It started at my lips, and it hurt. Really bad. If I didn’t chronically apply lip balm and Aquaphor, my lips cracked and bled. I became the friend who always had lip products, and I was constantly trying to find a better treatment. But the dryness didn’t stop there, it continued down my neck and in between my joints. 

   I developed severe eczema, a skin condition I hadn’t had since I was little. Eczema can appear on the skin as red, inflamed, dry, or blistery blotches. And if it’s not treated with topical steroids, it can be extremely painful. In my case, I was lucky. Eczema wasn’t my worst side effect, and although uncomfortable, it wasn’t exactly painful for me. I’d had the condition earlier in life and knew how to handle it. 

  My least favorite side effect was the next to appear: Irritability. I honestly became a different person. My friends coined the phrase ‘Accutane anger,’ and it wasn’t pretty. They made jokes out of my worst moments, but I don’t blame them. Yelling, snapping, and lashing out became a daily occurrence. It never felt good. I hated everything and everyone, but it wasn’t me. It was the drug. 

   These anger issues quickly became my biggest insecurity, and thank god it wasn’t permanent. 

  Lastly, we’ll go back to the beginning. The very last side effect to kick in was impaired night vision. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Where my eyes could normally adjust to the darkness, I only saw pitch black. 

   Waking up in the middle of the night for a glass of water led to bumping my knees against dressers and hitting my head on chandeliers. The scariest thing was driving at night. I was in the process of getting my license, but I had a permit and needed to practice before my test. Night drives became something I feared; I avoided them at all costs.  


  Eventually, the side effects lead to unnecessary worries. I wanted to permanently get rid of my acne, but my goal was starting to feel less rewarding. Accutane was costing my parents thousands of dollars, and for what? No pimples? How could I justify the costs in comparison to the benefits? 

   Well, I can proudly say that post-Accutane I had perfect skin… for about 6 months. Recently, my skin has been getting bad again. And like before, nothing works. There is no face wash, no ointment, and no supplement that will combat this acne.

   I’m back in the position I was in a year ago: deciding if I should go through a round of Accutane. But this time, I know what it will do to me, and I know how to handle it. 

   Odds are I will go back on the drug, but this will be the last time. Hopefully, my clear skin will stay for good.