Erythroderma (Generalized Exfoliative Dermatitis)

Updated: Mar 03, 2016
  • Author: Sanusi H Umar, MD, FAAD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
  • Print


Exfoliative dermatitis (ED) is a definitive term that refers to a scaling erythematous dermatitis involving 90% or more of the cutaneous surface. Exfoliative dermatitis is characterized by erythema and scaling involving the skin's surface and often obscures the primary lesions that are important clues to understanding the evolution of the disease. Clinicians are challenged to find the cause of exfoliative dermatitis by eliciting the history of illness prior to erythema and scaling, by probing with biopsies, and by performing blood studies. See the images below.

Exfoliative dermatitis diffuse skin involvement. Exfoliative dermatitis diffuse skin involvement.
Exfoliative dermatitis close-up view showing eryth Exfoliative dermatitis close-up view showing erythema and scaling.

The term red man syndrome is reserved for idiopathic exfoliative dermatitis, in which no primary cause can be found, despite serial examinations and tests. Idiopathic exfoliative dermatitis is characterized by marked palmoplantar keratoderma, dermatopathic lymphadenopathy, and a raised level of serum immunoglobulin E (IgE) and is more likely to persist than other types.

The term l'homme rouge refers to exfoliative dermatitis that is secondary to cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. The historic classification of exfoliative dermatitis into Wilson-Brocq (a chronic process associated with exacerbation and remissions), Hebra or pityriasis rubra (relentlessly progressive disease), and Savill (self-limiting) types lacks any clinical significance.



An increased skin blood perfusion occurs in exfoliative dermatitis (ED) that results in temperature dysregulation (resulting in heat loss and hypothermia) and possible high-output cardiac failure. The basal metabolic rate rises to compensate for the resultant heat loss. Fluid loss by transpiration is increased in proportion to the basal metabolic rate. The situation is similar to that observed in patients following burns (negative nitrogen balance characterized by edema, hypoalbuminemia, loss of muscle mass).

A marked loss of exfoliated scales occurs that may reach 20-30 g/d. This contributes to the hypoalbuminemia commonly observed in exfoliative dermatitis. Hypoalbuminemia results, in part, from decreased synthesis or increased metabolism of albumin. Edema is a frequent finding, probably resulting from fluid shift into the extracellular spaces. Immune responses may be altered, as evidenced by increased gamma-globulins, increased serum IgE in some cases, eosinophil infiltration, and CD4+ T-cell lymphocytopenia in the absence of HIV infection. Oxidative stress is also associated with drug-induced erythroderma. [1]




No racial predilection is reported for exfoliative dermatitis (ED).


Male-to-female ratio is 2-4:1.


Exfoliative dermatitis onset usually occurs in persons older than 40 years, except when the condition results from atopic dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome, or a hereditary ichthyosis. Age of onset primarily is related to etiology. [2, 3]