Pityriasis lichenoides is the name given to an uncommon rash of unknown cause. The condition can range from a relatively mild chronic form to a more severe acute eruption. The mild chronic form, known as pityriasis lichenoides chronica (PLC), is characterised by the gradual development of symptomless, small, scaling papules that spontaneously flatten and regress over a period of weeks. At the other end of a continuous clinical spectrum of pityriasis lichenoides is the acute form of the condition. This is characterised by the abrupt eruption of small scaling papules that develop into blisters and crusted red-brown spots. This acute form is known as pityriasis lichenoides et varioliformis acuta (PLEVA).
Who gets pityriasis lichenoides and why?
Pityriasis lichenoides most often affects adolescents and young adults, usually appearing before the age of 30. It appears to be slightly more common in males. It is rare in infants and in old age.
The cause of pityriasis lichenoides is not yet known but 3 major theories exist:
- An inflammatory reaction triggered by infectious agents
- A relatively benign form of T-cell lymphoproliferative disorder
- An immune-complex-mediated hypersensitivity vasculitis
Infections that have been associated with both PLC and PLEVA include:
- Toxoplasma gondii
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Parvovirus (fifth disease)
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Group A beta-haemolytic streptococci
Lymphoproliferative disorders are conditions in which there excessive numbers of lymphocytes (T- and B-cells), including lymphoma (a malignant growth of lymphocytes). The idea that pityriasis lichenoides may be a lymphoproliferative disorder arises because lesions of patients with pityriasis lichenoides showed the presence of immune T-cells with specific CD30+ markers or antigens in PLEVA, and loss of CD7 antigens on T-cells in PLC. These characteristics of T cells are indicators of lymphoproliferative disorders.
The third theory behind the cause of pityriasis lichenoides is the detection of circulating immune complexes (aggregations of antigens and antibodies) deposited in the skin in some patients with the condition.
What are the signs and symptoms of pityriasis lichenoides?
Pityriasis lichenoides chronica (PLC)
PLC has a more low-grade clinical course than PLEVA. PLC lesions may appear over the course of several days, weeks or months. Lesions at various stages may be present at any one time.
- Initially a small pink papule occurs that turns a reddish-brown colour
- Usually a fine mica-like adherent scale attached to the central spot develops. This can be peeled off to reveal a shiny, pinkish brown surface.
- Over several weeks the spot flattens out spontaneously and leaves behind a brown mark, which fades over several months.
PLC most commonly occurs over the trunk, buttocks, arms and legs, but may also occur on the hands, feet, face and scalp. Unlike PLEVA, lesions are not painful, itchy or irritable. Often patients with PLC have exacerbations and relapses of the condition, which can last for months or years.
Pityriasis lichenoides et varioliformis acuta (PLEVA)
PLEVA is characterised by red patches that quickly evolve into papules 5-15 mm in diameter. They are often covered with a fine mica-like adherent scale. The centre of the papules often becomes filled with pus and blood, or eroded with overlying red-brown crust.
PLEVA most often occurs on the trunk and extremities but sometimes may also be diffuse and widespread, covering any part of the body. Unlike PLC, which has no apparent symptoms, patients with PLEVA experience burning and itchiness.
A subtype of PLEVA is febrile ulceronecrotic Mucha-Habermann disease. This condition is different to PLEVA in that black or necrotic papules rapidly develop into large coalescent crusted ulcers, blood-filled blisters, and pustules. Mucha-Habermann lesions are usually very painful. The ulcers may become infected. In addition, systemic systems may include high fever, sore throat, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, central nervous system symptoms, lung disease, enlarged spleen, arthritis, sepsis, anaemia, and conjunctival ulcers. In some cases the condition can lead to death.
What is the treatment of pityriasis lichenoides?
Pityriasis lichenoides may not always respond to treatment and relapses often occur when treatment is discontinued. If the rash is not causing symptoms, treatment may not be necessary. Large ulcerations found in febrile ulceronecrotic Muchas-Habermann disease require local wound care.
In cases where treatment is necessary, there are several different therapies available. Current recommended first-line therapies include:
- Sun exposure may help to resolve lesions but sunburn should be avoided.
- Topical steroids to reduce irritation. In more recent years concerns raised about their side effect profile has led to the increased use of nonsteroidal topical immunomodulators.
- Topical immunomodulators such as tacrolimus or pimecrolimus. Tacrolimus ointment applied twice daily has been used successfully to treat patients with PLC.
- Oral antibiotics. The most common antibiotics used are erythromycin and tetracycline. These antibiotics have been used to treat both PLC and PLEVA.
Second-line therapies include:
Third-line therapies include:
- Systemic steroids
- Methotrexate given orally or by IM injection has been used in PLC and PLEVA. It is often used to treat febrile ulceronecrotic Muchas-Habermann disease
- For more resistant and severe disease a combination of the above may be used
Pityriasis lichenoides may persist for some years but is generally fairly harmless, although there have been rare reports of malignant transformation. Because of this, regular follow-up is recommended.
- Bowers S, Warshaw EM. Pityriasis lichenoides and its subtypes. J Am Acad Dermatol 2006;55:557-72. Medline.
On DermNet NZ:
- Pityriasis lichenoides – Medscape Reference
- Pityriasis Lichenoides – British Association of Dermatologists
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