(See also Introduction to Hypersensitivity Reactions and Inflammatory Skin Disorders Introduction to Hypersensitivity and Inflammatory Skin Disorders The immune system plays a vital role in maintaining the health of all the tissues of the body. The immune system reacts to invaders, such as microorganisms, foreign substances, or cancer cells... read more .)
Erythema multiforme is usually caused by a reaction to an infection, usually herpes simplex virus.
Typical symptoms include red patches with purple-gray centers (target lesions) that suddenly appear on the palms and soles, arms and legs, and face and may later spread to the body.
Many people have mouth sores.
The diagnosis is by a doctor's recognition of the target lesions.
This disorder resolves without treatment, but symptoms can be treated with corticosteroids, antihistamines, and anesthetics applied to the skin.
If people have frequent attacks and the doctor thinks herpes simplex virus is the cause, an antiviral drug may help prevent recurrences.
Most cases are caused by a reaction to infection with the herpes simplex virus Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Infections Herpes simplex virus infection causes recurring episodes of small, painful, fluid-filled blisters on the skin, mouth, lips (cold sores), eyes, or genitals. This very contagious viral infection... read more . Some people with erythema multiforme develop herpesvirus cold sores on their lips several days before an attack of erythema multiforme.
Less often, cases are caused by bacterial infections (such as mycoplasma Mycoplasmas Mycoplasmas are bacteria that cause infections in the respiratory tract and the urinary and genital tracts. Mycoplasmas are different from other bacteria because they do not have cell walls... read more ), drugs, vaccines, infections with other viruses (especially hepatitis C Overview of Hepatitis Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. (See also Overview of Acute Viral Hepatitis and Overview of Chronic Hepatitis.) Hepatitis is common throughout the world. Hepatitis can be Acute (short-lived) read more ), and certain noninfectious diseases that affect the immune system, such as systemic lupus erythematosus Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic autoimmune inflammatory connective tissue disorder that can involve joints, kidneys, skin, mucous membranes, and blood vessel walls. Problems in the... read more .
Doctors are unsure exactly how erythema multiforme happens, but a type of immune reaction is suspected. Some cases of erythema multiforme do not have a clear cause.
Attacks of erythema multiforme may last 2 to 4 weeks. Some people have only one attack, but some have multiple recurrences. Recurrences are common, especially when the cause is herpes simplex virus. The frequency of recurrence usually decreases with time.
Usually, erythema multiforme appears suddenly, with reddened bumps erupting on the arms, legs, and face and then enlarging into circles. Often the rash is also present on the palms and soles. The red areas are distributed equally on both sides of the body. They often develop pale rings inside the patches and purple centers (called “target” or “iris” lesions) and small blisters. The red patches may cause no symptoms, but they sometimes itch or burn mildly. Painful blisters or sores often form on the lips and lining of the mouth and rarely in the eyes.
Doctors diagnose erythema multiforme by its characteristic appearance. However, Stevens-Johnson syndrome Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS) and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN) Stevens-Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrolysis are two forms of the same life-threatening skin disease that cause rash, skin peeling, and sores on the mucous membranes. (See also Introduction... read more may at first look very similar to erythema multiforme, so doctors monitor the person carefully until the diagnosis is clear.
Erythema multiforme resolves on its own, so treatment is usually not necessary. However, treatment of any underlying infection is helpful. If itching is bothersome, standard itching treatments Treatment Itching can be very uncomfortable. It is one of the most common reasons people see doctors who specialize in skin disorders (dermatologists). Itching makes people want to scratch. Scratching... read more , such as anesthetics and corticosteroids applied to the skin and antihistamines taken by mouth, may be helpful.
If painful mouth blisters make eating difficult, an anesthetic (numbing) liquid, such as lidocaine, may be applied to the inside of the mouth. If people are still not able to eat or drink well, nutrition and fluids are given intravenously.
People with frequent recurrences, especially when the doctor suspects herpesvirus may be the cause, may benefit from an antiviral drug (such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir) given at the first sign of an outbreak.