Exfoliative Dermatitis Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jun 22, 2021
  • Author: David Vearrier, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Barry E Brenner, MD, PhD, FACEP  more...
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A thorough history may elucidate the underlying etiology for the exfoliative dermatitis. The most common cause of exfoliative dermatitis is generalization of a preexisting dermatitis. Therefore, patients should be queried about a history of psoriasis or atopic, contact, seborrheic, or chronic actinic dermatitis. Drug eruption is a common cause of exfoliative dermatitis, so a thorough medication history is essential. Drug-induced exfoliative dermatitis may occur with oral or topical medications. A history of a localized exanthem followed by generalization is more common with topical medications, while a history of a morbilliform or scarlatiniform eruption is common with oral medications.

The most common complaint in patients with exfoliative dermatitis aside from rash is pruritus, which occurs in approximately 90% of patients. [1] The severity of the pruritus varies by underlying condition, being most severe in atopic dermatitis and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. Complaints of hair loss and nail changes are common. Sun exposure may worsen the rash, particularly in pityriasis rubra pilaris.



Physical Examination

Vital sign derangements include tachycardia, hyperthermia, and hypothermia. Tachycardia is reflexive in nature, occurring from increased insensible fluid losses and third spacing of fluid. [1] Hyperthermia occurs in 37% of patients and may be due to a hypermetabolic state, while hypothermia occurs in 4% of patients and may be due to excessive heat loss from increased cutaneous blood flow.

Abdominal examination may reveal hepatomegaly (20%), which is most common in drug-induced exfoliative dermatitis. [1] Splenomegaly is uncommon and suggestive of lymphoma.

By virtue of the definition of exfoliative dermatitis, skin examination is significant for erythema and scaling of at least 90% of the skin area. In acute exfoliative dermatitis, erythema may precede exfoliation by 2-6 days and so may not be present when a patient first seeks medical attention. [1] The character of the scale may provide clues to the underlying etiology: fine in atopic dermatitis and dermatophytosis, greasy in seborrheic dermatitis, large exfoliative scale in drug eruptions, and crusted in pemphigus foliaceus.

In chronic exfoliative dermatitis, hyperpigmentation (45%), hypopigmentation or depigmentation (20%), palmoplantar keratoderma (30%), lichenification (one third), nonscarring alopecia (20%), and multiple seborrheic keratoses may be seen. [1] Nail changes may be present in 40% of patients and may include shininess, brittleness, dullness, discoloration, subungual hyperkeratosis, Beau lines, paronychia, splinter hemorrhages, and nail loss. 

Pretibial or pedal edema may be seen in 50% of patients with exfoliative dermatitis. [1] Facial edema may occur with drug-induced exfoliative dermatitis. Diffuse lymphadenopathy is common, seen in approximately 50% of patients, and may be reactive in nature (ie, reactive dermatopathic lymphadenopathy) or may be due to lymphoma.



The most common complications of exfoliative dermatitis include dehydration, disturbed thermoregulation, poor nutritional status, and secondary bacterial infections (eg, skin and soft tissue infections). Secondary cutaneous infections may occur in patients with exfoliative dermatitis due to colonization of the skin with S aureus and impaired skin barrier function.

Use of corticosteroids or immunomodulators and impaired skin barrier function may result in opportunistic infections, including fungal infections.