Exfoliative Dermatitis

Updated: Apr 11, 2016
  • Author: David Vearrier, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Barry E Brenner, MD, PhD, FACEP  more...
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Practice Essentials

Exfoliative dermatitis is characterized by generalized erythema with scaling or desquamation affecting at least 90% of the body surface area. Systemic derangements may occur with exfoliative dermatitis, including peripheral edema, increased insensible fluid losses, disturbed thermoregulation, and high-output heart failure. See Clinical Presentation for more detail.


The underlying etiology of exfoliative dermatitis is variable; the most common causes are as follows:

  • Psoriasis
  • Drug reactions
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma

Exfoliative dermatitis is frequently idiopathic in nature. See Differential Diagnosis and Workup for more detail.


Treatment in the emergency department consists of the following:

  • Fluid resuscitation to replace insensible losses
  • Correction of electrolyte and thermoregulatory disturbances if present
  • Initiation of antihistamines and corticosteroids in consultation with a dermatologist

Patients with acute or severe exfoliative dermatitis may require hospitalization to correct and manage fluid and protein losses and electrolyte disturbances. See Treatment and Medication for more detail.



Exfoliative dermatitis, or erythroderma, is an erythematous, scaly dermatitis involving at least 90% of the skin surface. The diagnosis of exfoliative dermatitis is based on skin findings on physical examination and not on the underlying etiology for the dermatitis, which is variable and may be idiopathic (see Differential Diagnosis).

Exfoliative dermatitis diffuse skin involvement Exfoliative dermatitis diffuse skin involvement

The term "erythroderma" was first used by Hebra in 1868 to describe exfoliative dermatitis affecting at least 90% of the skin surface area. [1] Historically, exfoliative dermatitis was classified by its clinical course into one of three variants: Wilson-Brocq (chronic-relapsing), Hebra (chronic-persisting or progressive), and Savill (self-limited). These classifications are no longer used as clinical focus has shifted to the underlying etiology for the dermatitis.



The pathophysiologic processes resulting in exfoliative dermatitis vary with the underlying disorder responsible for the dermatitis. However, common to all conditions that cause exfoliative dermatitis is an increased rate of skin turnover. Normal epidermis has a continual turnover of epithelial cells. Cell division occurs near the basal layer. As cells move toward the periphery, they become well-keratinized. This process requires approximately 10-12 days. Cells subsequently remain in the stratum corneum for another 12-14 days prior to being sloughed.

In exfoliative dermatitis, the number of cells in the germinative layer and their mitotic rate is increased. The transit time of cells through the epidermis is shortened. As a result, the exfoliated scales are incompletely keratinized and contain material normally retained by the skin, including proteins, amino acids, and nucleic acids, which may result in a negative nitrogen balance. [2, 3] The amount of scale lost varies by underlying condition and its severity. Exfoliative dermatitis due to drug reactions, eczema, and psoriasis may result in the loss of 7.2 g, 9.6 g, and 22.6 g of scale per day, respectively (normal range, 500-1000 mg). Protein lost in that scale is 4.2 g, 5.6 g, and 12.8 g per day, respectively. The decreased transit time also results in impaired skin barrier function from incomplete keratinization, which may increase the absorption of medications administered transcutaneously through damaged skin.

Another common pathophysiologic process to all forms of exfoliative erythroderma is increased blood flow to the skin, which, in combination with impaired skin barrier function, results in increased insensible fluid loss through transpiration. Dehydration and reflex tachycardia are common. In severe cases, high-output cardiac failure may occur. Increased cutaneous blood flow also leads to increased heat loss, which may lead to a compensatory hypermetabolism and cachexia. [1]




The incidence and prevalence of exfoliative dermatitis have not been well-characterized. [1]  


Exfoliative dermatitis occurs in all races. 


The male-to-female ratio is approximately 2:1 to 4:1.


The average age at onset is 52 years. [1] When children are excluded, the average age of onset in adults is 60 years. 



Prognosis depends on the underlying etiology causing the exfoliative dermatitis.

In general, long-term prognosis is good for patients with drug-induced disease after the offending agent is withdrawn and proper supportive measures are undertaken. Typically, symptoms resolve within 2-6 weeks after cessation of the offending agent.

For patients with idiopathic exfoliative dermatitis, the prognosis is poor. Frequent recurrences or chronic symptoms require long-term steroid therapy and its attendant sequelae.

For patients with underlying disease or malignancy, prognosis rests on the outcome and course of the disease process.


Patient Education

Patients should be educated on the risks of secondary bacterial infections (eg, skin and soft tissue infections), fluid loss and dehydration, and hyperthermia/hypothermia. Patients should be advised to avoid known or suspected etiologic agents (eg, medications, allergens). Educate patients with underlying disease about symptomatic treatment and advise that many cases spontaneously remit. Advise patients to drink plenty of fluids and follow a high-protein diet to counteract increased fluid and protein losses.