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Erythema multiforme

EM; Erythema multiforme minor; Erythema multiforme major; Erythema multiforme minor - erythema multiforme von Hebra; Acute bullous disorder - erythema multiforme; Herpes simplex - erythema multiforme

 

Erythema multiforme (EM) is an acute skin reaction that comes from an infection or another trigger. EM is a self-limiting disease. This means it usually resolves on its own without treatment.

Causes

 

EM is a type of allergic reaction. In most cases, it occurs in response to an infection. In rare cases, it is caused by certain medicines or body-wide (systemic) illness.

Infections that may lead to EM include:

  • Viruses, such as herpes simplex that cause cold sores and genital herpes (most common)
  • Bacteria, such as Mycoplasma pneumoniaethat cause lung infection
  • Funguses, such as Histoplasma capsulatum, that cause histoplasmosis

Medicines that may cause EM include:

  • NSAIDs
  • Allopurinol (treats gout)
  • Certain antibiotics, such as sulfonamides and aminopenicillins
  • Anti-seizure medicines

Systemic illnesses that are associated with EM include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn disease
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

EM occurs mostly in adults 20 to 40 years old. People with EM may have family members who have had EM as well.

 

Symptoms

 

Symptoms of EM include:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • General ill feeling
  • Itchy skin
  • Joint aches
  • Many skin lesions (sores or abnormal areas) 

Skin sores may:

  • Start quickly
  • Come back
  • Spread
  • Be raised or discolored
  • Look like hives
  • Have a central sore surrounded by pale red rings, also called a target, iris, or bulls-eye
  • Have liquid-filled bumps or blisters of various sizes
  • Be located on the upper body, legs, arms, palms, hands, or feet
  • Include the face or lips
  • Appear evenly on both sides of the body (symmetrical)

Other symptoms may include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dry eyes
  • Eye burning, itching, and discharge
  • Eye pain
  • Mouth sores
  • Vision problems

There are two forms of EM:

  • EM minor usually involves the skin and sometimes mouth sores.
  • EM major often starts with a fever and joint aches. Besides the skin sores and mouth sores, there may be sores in the eyes, genitals, lung airways, or gut.

 

Exams and Tests

 

Your health care provider will look at your skin to diagnose EM. You'll be asked about your medical history, such as recent infections or medicines you've taken.

Tests may include:

  • Skin lesion biopsy
  • Examination of skin tissue under a microscope

 

Treatment

 

EM usually goes away on its own with or without treatment.

Your provider will have you stop taking any medicines that may be causing the problem. But, don't stop taking medicines on your own without talking to your provider first.

Treatment may include:

  • Medicines, such as antihistamines, to control itching
  • Moist compresses applied to the skin
  • Pain medicines to reduce fever and discomfort
  • Mouthwashes to ease discomfort of mouth sores that interferes with eating and drinking
  • Antibiotics for skin infections
  • Corticosteroids to control inflammation
  • Medicines for eye symptoms

Good hygiene may help prevent secondary infections (infections that occur from treating the first infection).

Use of sunscreen, protective clothing, and avoiding excessive exposure to sun may prevent the recurrence of EM.

 

Outlook (Prognosis)

 

Mild forms of EM usually get better in 2 to 6 weeks, but the problem may return.

 

Possible Complications

 

Complications of EM may include:

  • Patchy skin color
  • Return of EM, especially with HSV infection

 

When to Contact a Medical Professional

 

Call your provider right away if you have symptoms of EM.

 

 

References

Holland KE, Soung PJ. Acquired rashes in the older child. In: Kleigman RM, Lye PS, Bordini BJ, Toth H, Basel D, eds. Nelson Pediatric Symptom-Based Diagnosis. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 48.

Rubenstein JB, Spektor T. Conjunctivitis: infectious and noninfectious. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 4.6.

Shah KN. Urticaria and erythema multiforme. In: Long SS, Prober CG, Fischer M, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 72.

Text only

 
  • Erythema multiforme on the hands

    Erythema multiforme on the hands - illustration

    Erythema multiforme on the hands: These lesions are circular and may appear in concentric rings (often called target lesions). They may be associated with other medical conditions such as infections or medications. Cold sores (herpes simplex on the lips) is often associated with this condition.

    Erythema multiforme on the hands

    illustration

  • Erythema multiforme, circular lesions - hands

    Erythema multiforme, circular lesions - hands - illustration

    Erythema multiforme lesions are circular and may appear in concentric rings (often called target lesions). Target lesions may also be associated with other medical conditions such as herpes infection, streptococcal infection, tuberculosis (TB), or as a reaction to chemicals or medications.

    Erythema multiforme, circular lesions - hands

    illustration

  • Erythema multiforme, target lesions on the palm

    Erythema multiforme, target lesions on the palm - illustration

    Erythema multiforme lesions are often referred to as target lesions because of the concentric rings the lesions produce. The target appearance is well demonstrated in this photograph.

    Erythema multiforme, target lesions on the palm

    illustration

  • Erythema multiforme on the leg

    Erythema multiforme on the leg - illustration

    The red spots on this person's back appear where blisters (bullae) caused by Erythema multiforme have ruptured and the overlying skin removed (denuded). The resulting lesions are yellow-crusted ulcers (erosions). Erythema multiforme may be associated with herpes simplex infection, mycoplasma pneumonia, or other medical conditions such as streptococcal infection, tuberculosis (TB), or may result from exposure to chemicals or medications.

    Erythema multiforme on the leg

    illustration

  • Erythema multiforme on the hand

    Erythema multiforme on the hand - illustration

    This individual has erythema multiforme minor, with target lesions on his hands. His condition may result from a recurrent herpes simplex virus infection on the lip.

    Erythema multiforme on the hand

    illustration

  • Exfoliation following erythroderma

    Exfoliation following erythroderma - illustration

    This picture shows diffuse redness (erythema) and scaling on the arm.

    Exfoliation following erythroderma

    illustration

    • Erythema multiforme on the hands

      Erythema multiforme on the hands - illustration

      Erythema multiforme on the hands: These lesions are circular and may appear in concentric rings (often called target lesions). They may be associated with other medical conditions such as infections or medications. Cold sores (herpes simplex on the lips) is often associated with this condition.

      Erythema multiforme on the hands

      illustration

    • Erythema multiforme, circular lesions - hands

      Erythema multiforme, circular lesions - hands - illustration

      Erythema multiforme lesions are circular and may appear in concentric rings (often called target lesions). Target lesions may also be associated with other medical conditions such as herpes infection, streptococcal infection, tuberculosis (TB), or as a reaction to chemicals or medications.

      Erythema multiforme, circular lesions - hands

      illustration

    • Erythema multiforme, target lesions on the palm

      Erythema multiforme, target lesions on the palm - illustration

      Erythema multiforme lesions are often referred to as target lesions because of the concentric rings the lesions produce. The target appearance is well demonstrated in this photograph.

      Erythema multiforme, target lesions on the palm

      illustration

    • Erythema multiforme on the leg

      Erythema multiforme on the leg - illustration

      The red spots on this person's back appear where blisters (bullae) caused by Erythema multiforme have ruptured and the overlying skin removed (denuded). The resulting lesions are yellow-crusted ulcers (erosions). Erythema multiforme may be associated with herpes simplex infection, mycoplasma pneumonia, or other medical conditions such as streptococcal infection, tuberculosis (TB), or may result from exposure to chemicals or medications.

      Erythema multiforme on the leg

      illustration

    • Erythema multiforme on the hand

      Erythema multiforme on the hand - illustration

      This individual has erythema multiforme minor, with target lesions on his hands. His condition may result from a recurrent herpes simplex virus infection on the lip.

      Erythema multiforme on the hand

      illustration

    • Exfoliation following erythroderma

      Exfoliation following erythroderma - illustration

      This picture shows diffuse redness (erythema) and scaling on the arm.

      Exfoliation following erythroderma

      illustration

    Tests for Erythema multiforme

     
     

    Review Date: 10/14/2018

    Reviewed By: Michael Lehrer, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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