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 almost always 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
Signs and tests
The skin separates easily when the surface of unaffected skin is rubbed sideways with a cotton swab or finger. This is called a positive Nikolsky's sign.
A skin biopsy is usually done to confirm the diagnosis.
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
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, cyclosporin, 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 is usually 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
Side effects of medications
Spread of infection through the bloodstream (sepsis)
Calling your health care provider
Your health care provider should examine any unexplained blisters.
Call your health care provider if you have been treated for pemphigus vulgaris and you develop any of the following symptoms:
Baroni A, Lanza A, Cirillo N, Brunetti G, Ruocco E, Ruocco V. Vesicular and bullous disorders: pemphigus. Dermatol Clin. 2007;25(4):597-603.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; and Roy Colven, MD, Dermatologist, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.