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Phytophotodermatitis

  • Author: William P Baugh, MD; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
 
Updated: Jul 24, 2014
 

Background

Phytophotodermatitis (PPD) is a cutaneous phototoxic inflammatory eruption resulting from contact with light-sensitizing botanical substances and long-wave ultraviolet (UV-A 320-380 nm) radiation. The eruption usually begins approximately 24 hours after exposure and peaks at 48-72 hours.[1] The phototoxic result may be intensified by wet skin, sweating, and heat.

Phytophotodermatitis typically manifests as a burning erythema that may subsequently blister. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation lasting weeks to months may ensue (see the images below). In some patients, the preceding inflammatory reaction may be mild and go unrecognized by the patient. In this case, the patient presents with only pigmentary changes.

A 26-year-old female airline flight attendant expo A 26-year-old female airline flight attendant exposed to lime while serving drinks en route to the Caribbean. During the Caribbean layover, she had significant sun exposure. The combination of lime juice and sun exposure led to a drip-pattern blister formation on the dorsal forearm consistent with phytophotodermatitis. This picture clearly delineates the potential severity of phytophotodermatitis with extensive blister formation.
The 2-month follow-up picture of a patient with a The 2-month follow-up picture of a patient with a drip-pattern blister formation on the dorsal forearm demonstrates the potential postinflammatory pigmentation changes and scarring that may occur with severe blistering of phytophotodermatitis.

See 11 Common Plants That Can Cause Dangerous Poisonings, a Critical Images slideshow, to help identify plant reactions and poisonings.

Also see Berloque Dermatitis and Drug-Induced Photosensitivity.

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Pathophysiology

Cutaneous inflammation produced by plants can be separated into 4 groups based on their specific mechanism of action: urticarial dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, and phototoxic dermatitis.

Phytophotodermatitis is a phototoxic reaction entirely independent of the immune system; that is, phytophotodermatitis can occur in any individual, and prior sensitization or an intact immune system is not required. The ingredients needed to produce phytophotodermatitis include temporal exposure to both a photosensitizing substance, such as psoralens, and ultraviolet radiation. Furocoumarins are photosensitizing chemical components produced by certain plants and consist of psoralens, 5-methoxypsoralens, 8-methoxypsoralens, angelicin, bergaptol, and xanthotal.

The natural sunlight emission spectrum reaching the earth ranges from approximately 270-5000 nm. This electromagnetic radiation consists of photons with a reciprocal relationship between the wavelength and the energy of the photons. Only light that is absorbed into the skin can cause a photochemical reaction. Within the light spectra, UV-A (320-400 nm) is responsible for the vast majority of photoreactions resulting in phytophotodermatitis.

The wavelengths of ultraviolet light that most efficiently produce phytophotodermatitis lie within the UV-A range and have peak activity at 335 nm. When a photon with the appropriate wavelength strikes a furocoumarin, the energy is absorbed, raising this chemical to a triple excited state from the ground state. Upon return to the ground state, energy is released in the form of heat, fluorescence, and/or phosphorescence, and a photoproduct may form.

Two distinct photochemical reactions have been described in phytophotodermatitis, which occur independently from each other. A type I reaction occurs in the absence of oxygen, whereas a type II reaction occurs in the presence of oxygen. These photochemical reactions damage cell membranes and DNA and result in DNA interstrand cross-linking between the psoralen furan ring and the thymines or the cytosines of DNA. During the type I oxygen-independent reaction, the RNA and nuclear DNA become fastened to the exposed ultraviolet-activated furocoumarins. Likewise, the oxygen-dependent reactions result in cell membrane damage and edema from activated furocoumarins. This results in activation of arachidonic acid metabolic pathways and in cell death (sunburn cells and apoptotic keratinocytes). Clinically, erythema, blistering, epidermal necrosis, and eventual epidermal desquamation occur. See the image below.

Close-up view of vesicular linear streaks with mor Close-up view of vesicular linear streaks with morphology suggestive of scattered foci of epidermal necrosis.

A postinflammatory pigment alteration may follow the acute phase of this phototoxic reaction. This alteration occurs primarily by 2 mechanisms. First, melanin, which is normally found in the epidermis, "falls" into the dermis and is ingested by melanophages. Secondly, an increased number of functional melanocytes and melanosomes are distributed in the epidermis following phytophotodermatitis and also account for the hyperpigmentation. This hyperpigmentation may serve as a protective mechanism against further UV injury. Clinically, this corresponds with irregular hyperpigmentation (or occasionally hypopigmentation resulting in dyschromia) seen as the end stage of the phototoxic reaction.

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Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

The frequency of phytophotodermatitis in the general population has not been well established.

International

The overall incidence of phytophotodermatitis is unknown, but it undoubtedly varies according to the population studied and is based on the risk of exposure to psoralen compounds. Because furocoumarins are found in a wide range of wild and domestic plants, a variety of patient groups may become exposed. An example of an international greenery known to produce phytophotodermatitis is Ficus carica, also known as a fig tree. This plant is often sought for the fruit it produces, as well as for analgesic folk medicine applications. Ficus pumila can be found worldwide, yet is native to China, Japan, and Taiwan.

Mortality/Morbidity

Most commonly, phytophotodermatitis is a localized cutaneous phenomenon resulting initially in a burning sensation, which may be followed acutely by erythema and blistering. Eventually, the affected sites may desquamate and develop permanent hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation. However, scarring is rare.

Race

Any race may be affected, but phytophotodermatitis is most easily recognized in fair-skinned patients.

Sex

Both sexes may be affected.

Age

Any age may be affected, but note that phytophotodermatitis occurring on a child may be mistaken for child abuse. Classic examples include a handprint pattern on a child after exposure to a parent cooking with lime juice or a linear drip pattern on a child's hands and arms after eating real juice ice pops.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

William P Baugh, MD Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology, Western University of Health Sciences; Medical Director, Full Spectrum Dermatology; Consulting Staff, Department of Dermatology, St Jude Medical Center

William P Baugh, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, Christian Medical and Dental Associations

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Coauthor(s)

David Barnette, Jr, MD Voluntary Associate Clinical Professor, University of California San Diego School of Medicine

David Barnette, Jr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatopathology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Walter D Kucaba, DO Private Family Practice, Simpsonville, South Carolina

Walter D Kucaba, DO is a member of the following medical societies: Aerospace Medical Association, American Medical Association, American Osteopathic Association, Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Cynthia L Chen, DO, DO Intern, Pacific Hospital of Long Beach, California

Cynthia L Chen, DO, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Osteopathic Association, California Medical Association, American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, Los Angeles County Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Richard P Vinson, MD Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Dermatology, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Mountain View Dermatology, PA

Richard P Vinson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Texas Medical Association, Association of Military Dermatologists, Texas Dermatological Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Jeffrey J Miller, MD Associate Professor of Dermatology, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine; Staff Dermatologist, Pennsylvania State Milton S Hershey Medical Center

Jeffrey J Miller, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology, Association of Professors of Dermatology, North American Hair Research Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

William D James, MD Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, Vice-Chairman, Residency Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Craig A Elmets, MD Professor and Chair, Department of Dermatology, Director, Chemoprevention Program Director, Comprehensive Cancer Center, UAB Skin Diseases Research Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine

Craig A Elmets, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Association of Immunologists, American College of Physicians, American Federation for Medical Research, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: University of Alabama at Birmingham; University of Alabama Health Services Foundation<br/>Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Ferndale Laboratories<br/>Received research grant from: NIH, Veterans Administration, California Grape Assn<br/>Received consulting fee from Astellas for review panel membership; Received salary from Massachusetts Medical Society for employment; Received salary from UpToDate for employment. for: Astellas.

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A 37-year-old white woman presented to the clinic complaining of a rash on the medial part of her right thigh and left arm that was acquired after clearing some weeds in her yard. A phototoxic combination of sunlight and a psoralen-containing plant produced this bizarre linear vesicular eruption.
Closer clinical view of bizarre angulated vesicular streaks, which occurred after contact with a plant and ultraviolet light exposure.
A 26-year-old female airline flight attendant exposed to lime while serving drinks en route to the Caribbean. During the Caribbean layover, she had significant sun exposure. The combination of lime juice and sun exposure led to a drip-pattern blister formation on the dorsal forearm consistent with phytophotodermatitis. This picture clearly delineates the potential severity of phytophotodermatitis with extensive blister formation.
The 2-month follow-up picture of a patient with a drip-pattern blister formation on the dorsal forearm demonstrates the potential postinflammatory pigmentation changes and scarring that may occur with severe blistering of phytophotodermatitis.
Close-up view of vesicular linear streaks with morphology suggestive of scattered foci of epidermal necrosis.
Queen Anne's lace, a member of the Umbelliferae family of plants, is well known to produce a furocoumarin-induced phototoxic eruption.
Ficus. The common fig contains furocoumarins and should be considered amidst the list of potential offending agents that cause phytophotodermatitis.
Table. Common Causes of Phytophotodermatitis
Family Genus Species Common Names Main Compounds
Umbelliferae Amni majus Queen Anne's lace, Bishop's weed 8-methoxypsoralen (8-MOP), 5-methoxypsoralen (5-MOP), imperatorin
Heracleum sphondylium Cow parsnip 8-MOP, 5-MOP, imperatorin, phellopterin
Heracleum mantegazzianum Giant hogweed, Cartwheel flower 8-MOP, 5-MOP, imperatorin, phellopterin
Pastinaca sativa Parsnip 8-MOP, 5-MOP, imperatorin, isopimpinellin
Apium graveolens Celery Psoralens, 8-MOP, 5-MOP
Rutaceae Citrus bergamia Bergamot lime 5-MOP
Citrus maxima Zabon[10] 5-MOP
Dictamnus albus Gas plant, “Burning bush of Moses” 8-MOP, 5-MOP
Moracea Ficus carica Fig Psoralens, 5-MOP
Leguminosae Psoralea corylifolia Bavchi, Scurf pea Psoralens
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