Pemphigus is an autoimmune disorder. The immune system produces antibodies against specific proteins in the skin and mucus membranes. These antibodies break the bonds between skin cells. This leads to the formation of a blister. The exact cause is unknown.
Sometimes pemphigus is caused by certain medications, although this is rare. Medications that may cause this condition include:
- A drug called penicillamine, which removes certain materials from the blood (chelating agent)
- Blood pressure medications called ACE inhibitors
Pemphigus is uncommon. It most often occurs in middle-aged or older people.
About 50% of people with this condition first develop painful blisters and sores in the mouth, followed by skin blisters. Skin sores may come and go.
The skin sores may be described as:
- Peeling or easily detached
They may be located:
- In the mouth
- On the scalp, trunk, or other skin areas
Severe cases of pemphigus may need wound management, similar to the treatment for severe burns. People with this condition may need to stay in a hospital and receive care in a burn unit or intensive care unit.
Treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms, including pain. It also aims to prevent complications, especially infections.
Treatment may involve:
- Antibiotics and antifungal medications to control or prevent infections
- Fluids and electrolytes given through a vein (IV)
- IV feedings if there are severe mouth ulcers
- Numbing (anesthetic) mouth lozenges to reduce mouth ulcer pain
- Pain medications if local pain relief is not enough
Body-wide (systemic) therapy is needed to control pemphigus and should be started as early as possible. Systemic treatment includes:
- An anti-inflammatory drug called dapsone
- Medications containing gold
- Medications that suppress the immune system (such as azathioprine, methotrexate, cyclosporine, cyclophosphamide, mycophenolate mofetil, or rituximab)
However, side effects from systemic therapy are a major complication.
Some antibiotics are also effective, particularly minocycline and doxycycline. Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) is occasionally used.
Plasmapheresis is a process in which antibody-containing plasma is removed from the blood and replaced with intravenous fluids or donated plasma. Plasmapheresis may be used along with systemic medications to reduce the amount of antibodies in the blood.
Ulcer and blister treatments include soothing or drying lotions, wet dressings, or similar measures.
Without treatment, this condition can be life threatening. Severe infection is the most frequent cause of death.
With treatment, the disorder tends to be chronic. Side effects of treatment may be severe or disabling.
- Secondary skin infections
- Severe dehydration
- Side effects of medications
- Spread of infection through the bloodstream (sepsis)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Baroni A, Lanza A, Cirillo N, Brunetti G, Ruocco E, Ruocco V. Vesicular and bullous disorders: pemphigus. Dermatol Clin. 2007;25(4):597-603. PMID: 17903618 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17903618.
Habif TP. Vesicular and bullous diseases. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2009:chap 16.
Update Date 7/30/2014
Updated by: Richard J. Moskowitz, MD, Dermatologist in private practice, Mineola, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.