Dermatitis herpetiformis

Dermatitis herpetiformis
Dermatitis herpetiformis characteristic rash
Classification and external resources
Specialty Dermatology
ICD-10 L12.2, L13
ICD-9-CM 694.0
DiseasesDB 3597
MedlinePlus 001480
eMedicine derm/95
MeSH D003874

Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), or Duhring's disease,[1][2] is a chronic blistering skin condition,[3] characterised by blisters filled with a watery fluid.[4] Despite its name, DH is neither related to nor caused by herpes virus: the name means that it is a skin inflammation having an appearance similar to herpes.

DH was first described by Louis Adolphus Duhring in 1884.[5] A connection between DH and coeliac disease was recognised in 1967,[5][6] although the exact causal mechanism is not known. DH is a specific manifestation of coeliac disease.[7]

The age of onset is usually about 15-40, but DH can also affect children and the elderly. Men and women are equally affected. Estimates of DH prevalence vary from 1 in 400 to 1 in 10000. It is most common in patients of northern European/northern Indian ancestry, and is associated with the HLA-DQ2 haplotype along with coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.[8][9][10][11]

Signs and symptoms

Characteristic rash

Dermatitis herpetiformis is characterized by intensely itchy, chronic papulovesicular eruptions, usually distributed symmetrically on extensor surfaces (buttocks, back of neck, scalp, elbows, knees, back, hairline, groin, or face).[1]:616[9][12] The blisters vary in size from very small up to 1 cm across.

The condition is extremely itchy, and the desire to scratch can be overwhelming.[13] This sometimes causes the sufferer to scratch the blisters off before they are examined by a physician.[9] Intense itching or burning sensations are sometimes felt before the blisters appear in a particular area.[4][14]

Untreated, the severity of DH can vary significantly over time, in response to the amount of gluten ingested.[14]

Dermatitis herpetiformis symptoms typically first appear in the early years of adulthood between 20 and 30 years of age.[15]

Although the first signs and symptoms of dermatitis herpetiformis are intense itching and burning, the first visible signs are the small papules or vesicles that usually look like red bumps or blisters. The rash rarely occurs on other mucous membranes, excepting the mouth or lips. The symptoms range in severity from mild to serious, but they are likely to disappear if gluten ingestion is avoided and appropriate treatment is administered.

Dermatitis herpetiformis symptoms are chronic, and they tend to come and go, mostly in short periods of time. Sometimes, these symptoms may be accompanied by symptoms of coeliac disease, commonly including abdominal pain, bloating or loose stool, and fatigue.

The rash caused by dermatitis herpetiformis forms and disappears in three stages. In the first stage, the patient may notice a slight discoloration of the skin at the site where the lesions appear. In the next stage, the skin lesions transform into obvious vesicles and papules that are likely to occur in groups. Healing of the lesions is the last stage of the development of the symptoms, usually characterized by a change in the skin color. This can result in areas of the skin turning darker or lighter than the color of the skin on the rest of the body. Because of the intense itching, patients usually scratch, which can lead to the formation of crusts.


In terms of pathology, the first signs of the condition may be observed within the dermis. The changes that can take place at this level may include edema, vascular dilatation, and cellular infiltration. It is common for lymphocytes and eosinophils to be seen. The bullae found in the skin affected by dermatitis herpetiformis are subepidermal and have rounded lateral borders.

When looked at under the microscope, the skin affected by dermatitis herpetiformis presents a collection of neutrophils. They have an increased prevalence in the areas where the dermis is closest to the epidermis.

Direct IMF studies of uninvolved skin show IgA in the dermal papillae and patchy granular IgA along the basement membrane. The jejunal mucosa may show partial villous atrophy, but the changes tend to be milder than in coeliac disease.[16]

Immunological studies revealed findings that are similar to those of coeliac disease in terms of autoantigens. The main autoantigen of dermatitis herpetiformis is epidermal transglutaminase (eTG), a cytosolic enzyme involved in cell envelope formation during keratinocyte differentiation.[8]

Various research studies have pointed out different potential factors that may play a larger or smaller role in the development of dermatitis herpetiformis. The fact that eTG has been found in precipitates of skin-bound IgA from skin affected by this condition has been used to conclude that dermatitis herpetiformis may be caused by a deposition of both IgA and eTG within the dermis. It is estimated that these deposits may resorb after 10 years of following a gluten-free diet. Moreover, it is suggested that this condition is closely linked to genetics. This theory is based on the arguments that individuals with a family history of gluten sensitivity who still consume foods containing gluten are more likely to develop the condition as a result of the formation of antibodies to gluten. These antibodies cross-react with eTG, and IgA/eTG complexes deposit within the papillary dermis to cause the lesions of dermatitis herpetiformis. These IgA deposits can disappear after long-term (up to 10 years) avoidance of dietary gluten.[8]


Dermatitis herpetiformis is often misdiagnosed, being confused with drug eruptions, contact dermatitis, dishydrotic eczema (dyshidrosis), and even scabies.[17]

The diagnosis can be confirmed by a simple blood test for IgA antibodies against tissue transglutaminase (which cross-react with epidermal transglutaminase),[18] and by a skin biopsy in which the pattern of IgA deposits in the dermal papillae, revealed by direct immunofluorescence, distinguishes it from linear IgA bullous dermatosis[9] and other forms of dermatitis. These tests should be done before the patient starts on a gluten-free diet,[14] otherwise they might produce false negatives. Like in ordinary celiac disease, IgA against transglutaminase disappears (often within months) when patients eliminate gluten from their diet. Thus, for both groups of patients, it may be necessary to restart gluten for several weeks before testing can be done reliably. In 2010, Cutis reported an eruption labelled gluten-sensitive dermatitis which is clinically indistinguishable from dermatitis herpetiformis but lacks the IgA connection,[19] similar to gastrointestinal symptoms mimicking coeliac disease but without the diagnostic immunological markers.[20]


Dapsone is an effective treatment for most patients. DH responds to dapsone so quickly (itching is significantly reduced within 2–3 days[13][21]) that this response may almost be considered diagnostic. However, dapsone treatment has no effect on any intestinal damage (see coeliac disease) that might be present.[11]

Therefore, a strict gluten-free diet must also be followed,[18] and this will usually be a lifelong requirement. This will reduce any associated intestinal damage[13][18] and the risk of other complications. After some time on a gluten-free diet, the dosage of dapsone can usually be reduced or even stopped,[13] although this can take many years.

Dapsone is an antibacterial, and its role in the treatment of DH, which is not caused by bacteria, is poorly understood. It can cause adverse effects on the blood, so regular blood monitoring is required.[4]

Dapsone is the drug of choice. For individuals with DH unable to tolerate dapsone for any reason, alternative treatment options may include the following:


Dermatitis herpetiformis generally responds well to medication and changes in diet. However, it is an autoimmune disease, and patients with DH are more likely than others to have thyroid problems[9][18] and intestinal lymphoma.[9][10][12]

Dermatitis herpetiformis does not usually cause complications on its own, without being associated with another condition. Complications from this condition, however, arise from the autoimmune character of the disease, as an overreacting immune system is a sign that something does not work well and might cause problems to other parts of the body that do not necessarily involve the digestive system.[22]

Gluten intolerance and the body's reaction to it make the disease more worrying in what concerns the possible complications. This means that complications that may arise from dermatitis herpetiformis are the same as those resulting from coeliac disease, which include osteoporosis, certain kinds of gut cancer, and an increased risk of other autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease.

The risks of developing complications from dermatitis herpetiformis decrease significantly if the affected individuals follow a gluten-free diet. The disease has been associated with autoimmune thyroid disease, insulin-dependent diabetes, lupus erythematosus, Sjögren's syndrome, sarcoidosis, vitiligo, and alopecia areata.[23]

Notable cases

It has been suggested that French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat suffered from DH,[24] leading him to spend much of his time in, and even work from, a bathtub filled with a herbal mixture that he used as a palliative for the sores.

See also


  1. 1 2 Freedberg, et al. (2003). Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. (6th ed.). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-138076-0.
  2. Rapini, Ronald P.; Bolognia, Jean L.; Jorizzo, Joseph L. (2007). Dermatology: 2-Volume Set. St. Louis: Mosby. ISBN 1-4160-2999-0.
  3. Singal A, Bhattacharya SN, Baruah MC (2002). "Dermatitis herpetiformis and rheumatoid arthritis". Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 68 (4): 229–30. PMID 17656946.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.
  5. 1 2 "What Is Dermatitis Herpetiformis?".
  6. Marietta EV, Camilleri MJ, Castro LA, Krause PK, Pittelkow MR, Murray JA (February 2008). "Transglutaminase autoantibodies in dermatitis herpetiformis and coeliac sprue". J. Invest. Dermatol. 128 (2): 332–5. doi:10.1038/sj.jid.5701041. PMID 17762854.
  7. "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". Retrieved 2015-04-20.
  8. 1 2 3 Miller JL, Collins K, Sams HH, Boyd A (2007-05-18). "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". emedicine from WebMD.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Van L, Browning JC, Krishnan RS, Kenner-Bell BM, Hsu S (2008). "Dermatitis herpetiformis: Potential for confusion with linear IgA bullous dermatosis on direct immunofluorescence". Dermatology Online Journal. 14 (1): 21. PMID 18319038.
  10. 1 2 "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". Patient UK.
  11. 1 2 "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
  12. 1 2 Turchin I, Barankin B (2005). "Dermatitis herpetiformis and gluten-free diet". Dermatology Online Journal. 11 (1): 6. PMID 15748547.
  13. 1 2 3 4 "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". The HealthScout Network.
  14. 1 2 3 "Detecting Celiac Disease in Your Patients". American Family Physician. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  15. "Dermatitis Herpetiformis". Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  16. "Perioral Dermatitis". Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  17. "What's The Diagnosis #9". Emergency Physicians Monthly. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 "Dermatitis herpetiformis". DermNet NZ.
  19. Korossy SK (2010). "Non-Dermatitis Herpetiformis Gluten-Sensitive Dermatitis: A Personal Account of an Unrecognized Entity". Cutis. 86 (6): 285–286. PMID 21284279.
  20. Biesiekierski JR, Newnham ED, Irving PM, Barrett JS, Haines M, Doecke, JD, Shepherd SJ, Muir JG, Gibson PR; Newnham; Irving; Barrett; Haines; Doecke; Shepherd; Muir; Gibson (2011). "Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without celiac disease: A double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial". American Journal of Gastroenterology. 106 (3): 508–514. doi:10.1038/ajg.2010.487. PMID 21224837.
  21. ""Dapsone"". Dermatology Online Journal.
  22. "Herpetiformis Dermatitis Effects And Complications". Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  23. Reunala, T; Collin, P (1997). "Diseases associated with dermatitis herpetiformis". The British journal of dermatology. 136 (3): 315–8. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.1997.tb14935.x. PMID 9115907.
  24. Jelinek JE (1979). "Jean-Paul Marat: The differential diagnosis of his skin disease". American Journal of Dermatopathology. 1 (3): 251–2. doi:10.1097/00000372-197900130-00010. PMID 396805.

Further reading

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