What Is Exfoliative Dermatitis?
Exfoliative dermatitis is redness and peeling of the skin over
large areas of the body. The term “exfoliative” refers to the exfoliation, or
shedding, of the skin. Dermatitis means irritation or inflammation of the skin.
The skin peeling may occur with pre-existing medical conditions or medications
in some people. The cause is unknown in others.
Exfoliative dermatitis, sometimes called erythroderma, is serious
but fairly uncommon. Complications can include infection, loss of nutrients,
dehydration, and heart failure, rarely leading to death.
What Are the Causes of Exfoliative
The root cause of exfoliative dermatitis is a disorder of the
skin cells. The cells die and shed too quickly in a process called turning
over. The rapid turnover of skin cells causes significant peeling and scaling
of the skin. The peeling and scaling may also be known as sloughing.
Many people who already suffer from chronic skin conditions,
including autoimmune diseases, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and eczema,
can also develop exfoliative dermatitis.
Adverse reactions to a variety of drugs can also contribute to
massive skin peeling. Drugs that may produce this condition include:
(Dilantin) and other seizure medications
medications (medications put on the skin)
However, almost any drug can cause exfoliative dermatitis.
Certain types of cancer, including leukemia and lymphoma, may
also accelerate the skin cell turnover rate. According to Merck
Manuals, up to 25 percent of cases of exfoliative dermatitis are idiopathic.
Idiopathic is when a disease or condition has no known cause.
What Are the Symptoms of Exfoliative
Skin and Nail Changes
Exfoliative dermatitis begins in most people with extreme reddening,
which spreads over large portions of the body. This change in skin color is known
as erythroderma. Erythroderma and exfoliative dermatitis are both names for
this condition. Massive peeling of the skin follows the reddening and
inflammation. The skin may be rough and scaly. The dryness and peeling of your
skin can cause itching and pain. Your nails may also become thicker and more
People who have exfoliative dermatitis may also have flu-like
symptoms, such as fever and chills. This is because widespread skin peeling can
affect your internal thermometer and cause heat loss from your damaged skin. Your
body isn’t able to control its temperature well. Most people with exfoliative
dermatitis also feel generally ill.
Complications from Skin Shedding
Those with this condition may also have a low blood volume. This
is due to loss of fluid through the shed skin.
Skin shedding may start in small patches, but over time, it spreads
to most of the body. Skin is made of mainly protein. The constant shedding of the skin can prevent your body from
absorbing essential nutrients that help to maintain a healthy epidermis (such as vitamins A and D). You also lose protein and fluids from the
sloughing. Dehydration and protein deficiencies are common complications. Fluid and electrolyte levels should be monitored by you and your doctor.
Two important functions of your skin are providing a barrier to
infections and other things in the environment, and protecting your inner
organs. When your skin sheds significantly, it loses some of these abilities.
This puts you at risk for serious infections and damage to underlying muscles
Severe symptoms of exfoliative dermatitis can be life-threatening.
Those who develop complications of infection, fluid and electrolyte abnormalities,
and cardiac failure are most at risk of death. The most common causes of death
in patients with exfoliative dermatitis are pneumonia, septicemia, and heart
What Are the Treatments for Exfoliative
You will probably receive treatment for exfoliative dermatitis in
the hospital. Your doctor will work to correct any dehydration, low blood
volume, heat loss, and electrolyte or nutritional deficiencies. Your doctor
will give you IV fluids and nutrients to treat these complications.
Reducing inflammation and making you more comfortable are important
goals of treatment. Supportive care includes warm baths, rest, and oral
antihistamines. Your doctor may also prescribe medicated creams to moisten your
dry, itchy skin.
Steroid medications treat severe or chronic inflammation and
flaking of the skin. Some patients may benefit from phototherapy, treatments
with psoralen, a photosensitizing agent, and ultraviolet A. Drugs that suppress
the immune system can slow the rate of skin shedding, especially for people
with chronic symptoms.
Infection can be a serious complication of this condition. Antibiotics
can treat and prevent dangerous skin infections. Proper attention to wound care
and dressings are also important to prevent infections.
Your doctors will also manage any underlying conditions. You will
probably need to stop taking medications that could cause allergic skin
What Is the Long-Term Outlook?
The outlook for exfoliative dermatitis varies for each patient.
Drug allergies are the easiest to treat. Your skin usually clears up within
several weeks after stopping the allergy-causing medication, along with
appropriate treatment. Managing conditions such as cancer and psoriasis can
speed healing too. People with no known cause for the disease may have
flare-ups throughout their lives. People who have had exfoliative dermatitis
may have long-lasting changes in the color of the affected skin. They may also
have problems with hair loss or nail changes.