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Purpura Fulminans Treatment & Management

  • Author: Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FACEP; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
Updated: Oct 01, 2015

Approach Considerations

Neonatal purpura fulminans

In a neonate with neonatal purpura fulminans, immediate treatment with platelet concentrate is recommended to reverse the thrombocytopenia and the bleeding manifestations. The neonate often develops disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). In the absence of signs of generalized bloodstream infection, deficiencies of the anticoagulant factors protein C, protein S, and antithrombin III (ATIII) remain important considerations. Consequently, the endogenous activity of these anticoagulant factors must be assessed by means of a chromogenic assay.

With a provisional diagnosis of purpura fulminans due to protein C deficiency, fresh frozen plasma (FFP) transfusion must be started. The FFP can later be replaced with low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH). Subsequently, oral anticoagulation with warfarin must be instituted. Debridement of the dead tissue is mandatory. The protein C, protein S, and ATIII genes must be analyzed both in the patient and in the parents.

These patients require long-term oral anticoagulation, which, if well tolerated, may be sufficient to permit them to remain free of coagulopathy throughout life.[13] If the genetic assays reveal a defect in the protein C or ATIII genes, the protein C or ATIII concentrates may be used to correct this coagulation disorder.

Idiopathic purpura fulminans

In 1995, Sheridan et al described a management strategy for idiopathic purpura fulminans with multiple organ failure in children.[14] In these patients, soft tissue necrosis was associated with meningococcal sepsis. Purpura fulminans was rarely a cause of meningococcal sepsis. The predominant presentation of meningococcal sepsis is bacterial meningitis.

In 3 cases reported by Sheridan et al, the purpura fulminans involved a large percentage of the patients’ body surface areas.[14] One patient, a 15-year-old boy, had skin lesions on 55% of his body surface area. Another patient, an 11-month-old girl, was affected on 25% of her body surface area. The third patient, a 2-year-old boy, had evidence of purpura fulminans on 55% of his body surface area. The pathogenesis of purpura fulminans was not known but probably involved acute transient decreases in protein C, protein S, or ATIII.

The successful management of meningococcal sepsis in these patients was obviously facilitated by early diagnosis and aggressive antibiotic therapy.[14] Management of purpura fulminans was particularly challenging in these cases because the children had evidence of multiple organ failure.

To better understand the current management of idiopathic purpura fulminans, 7 burn centers performed a 10-year retrospective chart review of patients who were diagnosed with idiopathic purpura fulminans.[15] A total of 70 patients were identified, with a mean patient age of 13 years. Neisseria meningitidis was the most common pathogen identified in infants and adolescents. Streptococcus species commonly affected the adult population.

In the patients studied, acute management consisted of antibiotic treatment, volume resuscitation, and ventilatory and inotropic support.[15] Protein C replacement was performed in only 9% of the cases. One fourth of the patients required amputation of all of the extremities.

When performed early, fasciotomies may reduce the depth of soft tissue involvement and the extent of amputation. Although the overall mortality in this study was only 13%, the surgeons believed this number to be inaccurately low because it did not reflect the number of patients who succumbed to sepsis in facilities outside the multicenter study group.

In general, the authors recommend a conservative approach to treatment of idiopathic purpura fulminans that includes excising gangrenous areas after they have been demarcated from purpuric and indeterminate zones. In the presence of infection, however, early aggressive surgical debridement is essential to prevent invasive wound sepsis. When compartment syndrome is suspected in patients with tense limbs and distal ischemia, early fasciotomy is recommended. If established gangrene is present, conservative amputation is warranted.

Manco-Johnson and Knapp-Clevenger described the use of activated protein C (APC) in a 14-year-old girl with protein C deficiency due to idiopathic purpura fulminans.[16] At the end of the APC infusions, all skin lesions of purpura fulminans were resolved. The patient experienced no adverse reactions to APC. The authors concluded that APC is safe and effective for the treatment of purpura fulminans with severe genetic protein C deficiency.

Recognition of the pathophysiologic mechanism of idiopathic purpura fulminans provides a rational basis for treatment with immediate heparinization and infusion of FFP.[11] In some cases complicated by major vessel thrombosis, the use of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) may reduce thromboembolic complications.

Acute infectious purpura fulminans

Meningococcemia and infection due to S aureus both lead to acute infectious purpura fulminans. Patients with these infections have remarkably reduced levels of APC as a result of dysfunction of the endothelial protein C activation pathway. APC not only acts as an anticoagulant but also serves as an important modulator of the inflammatory response.

On the basis of extensive experience, the authors believe that patients who present with acute infectious purpura fulminans should receive antibiotic therapy not only against Neisseria meningitidis and streptococci but also against methicillin-resistant S aureus (MRSA).

Consideration should also be given to early administration of APC concentrates to minimize purpura skin injury and to reduce the inflammatory cascade before irreparable tissue injury occurs.[17] Finally, because toxic shock syndrome is mediated by strong antigens, intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) therapy should be implemented because these preparations contain significant antibodies against the causative exotoxins.[18]

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has rarely been used in the treatment of purpura fulminans and is not currently considered an important part of its therapy.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FACEP FASPS, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Plastic Surgery, Biomedical Engineering and Emergency Medicine, University of Virginia Health Care System

Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Burn Association, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, American Spinal Injury Association, Plastic Surgery Research Council, Society of University Surgeons, Surgical Infection Society, American Surgical Association, American Trauma Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


William B Long, III, MD, FACS President, Trauma Specialists, LLP; President, Pacific Surgical, PC; Trauma Medical Director, Legacy Emanuel Trauma Center, Legacy Emanuel Hospital

William B Long, III, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Thoracic Society, American Trauma Society, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, Pacific Coast Surgical Association, Western Trauma Association, North Pacific Surgical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

K Dean Gubler, DO, MPH Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Surgery, Oregon Health Sciences University; Consulting Surgeon, Department of Surgery, Pacific Surgical, PC, Mount Hood Medical Center, Good Samaritan Hospital, Legacy Emanuel Hospital Trauma Program

K Dean Gubler, DO, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Surgeons, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Michael Stuart Bronze, MD David Ross Boyd Professor and Chairman, Department of Medicine, Stewart G Wolf Endowed Chair in Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Science Center; Master of the American College of Physicians; Fellow, Infectious Diseases Society of America

Michael Stuart Bronze, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Medical Association, Oklahoma State Medical Association, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of Professors of Medicine, American College of Physicians, Infectious Diseases Society of America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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