(Erythema Multiforme Minor; Erythema Multiforme Major; Stevens-Johnson Syndrome)
Pronounced: Er-uh-thee-ma Multi-form-aye
Erythema multiforme is a common skin disorder. It consists of target-like circular lesions. They have a red center, pale ring, and dark red outer ring. These lesions appear suddenly on the legs, arms, palms, hands, feet, and inside the mouth.
- Erythema multiforme minor is the most frequent form. It is generally mild.
- Erythema multiforme major, while rare, can be life-threatening. This severe form of the disorder usually causes target lesions with painful blisters at their center. They tend to appear on the trunk, eyes, inside the mouth, and genitals. It is also called Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
In some cases this condition can be caused by a reaction to an infection or certain medications. Often the cause is unknown.
Erythema multiforme minor is most commonly associated with:
- Herpes simplex virus—the same virus that causes cold sores
Other triggers connected with erythema multiforme major include:
Exposure to any of the known causes increase the risk. The conditions more commonly occurs in:
- Individuals who have had it before
- Individuals with history of cold sores (orolabial herpes) or genital herpes
- Children and young adults
- Males more than females
- Individuals who are HIV
Symptoms can vary from mild to severe. If you have any of these do not assume it is due to erythema multiforme. These symptoms may be caused by other health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your doctor.
Skin lesions or spots
- Typically appear over 3-4 days
- Start on hands and feet and spread to legs, arm, and face
- Spots start out as small, red areas, and progress to look like mini targets
- Spots may blister
- Rash appears equally on both sides of the body
- Rash resolves in 1-6 weeks
Red Blistered Skin© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.
Other possible symptoms include:
- Overall ill feeling
- Achy joints
- Vision problems
- Bloodshot or dry eyes
- Burning, painful, or itchy eyes
- Mouth sores
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. You may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin problems.
Most cases can be diagnosed based on your medical history and skin exam. If target lesions are present, then diagnosis is clear. The skin lesions may not be typical. In this case, a biopsy of the skin may be done. The skin sample is examined under a microscope.
Treatment for this condition involves:
- Eliminating the trigger or cause (if known)
- Relieving the symptoms
- Preventing infection of the lesions (in erythema multiforme major)
Treatment options include the following:
Management of Symptoms
- Moist compresses
- Oral antihistamines to help control itching
- Topical steroid creams to help discomfort and itching
- Acetaminophen to reduce pain and fever
- Given if the outbreak is caused by herpes simplex
- Prevent recurrence
- Not effective in treating the current rash
- Most often used for people with frequent outbreaks
Erythema Multiforme Major
- Oral or IV steroids—for severe cases may be treated with (there is some controversy about the effectiveness of this option)
- Hospitalization—for widespread, life-threatening lesions
American Academy of Dermatology
American Family Physician
Canadian Dermatology Association
Erythema multiforme. British Association of Dermatologists website. Available at: http://www.bad.org.uk/patients/leaflets/erythema.asp . Accessed September 20, 2005.
Erythema multiforme. DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamicmedical.com/dynamed.nsf?opendatabase . Accessed September 20, 2005.
Erythema multiforme. New Zealand Dermatological Society website. Available at: http://www.dermnetnz.org/reactions/erythema-multiforme.html . Accessed September 20, 2005.
Katta R. Taking aim at erythema multiforme. Postgraduate Medicine Online. Available at: http://www.postgradmed.com/issues/2000/01_00/katta.htm . Accessed September 20, 2005.
Erythema multiforme. US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000851.htm . Accessed September 20, 2005.
Last reviewed January 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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