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Dermatitis Herpetiformis

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Dermatitis Herpetiformis

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Dermatitis herpetiformis is an autoimmune disorder that develops an itchy lesion on taking wheat or barley into the diet. Read this article to know in detail.

Written by

Dr. Suvash Sahu

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sneha Kannan

Published At September 28, 2016
Reviewed AtApril 9, 2024


Dermatitis herpetiformis is also called Duhring-Brocq disease. It is characterized by an intensely itchy, chronic papulovesicular eruption usually distributed symmetrically on the extensor surfaces. After its presentation, the condition persists indefinitely in varying severity. The prevalence varies from 10 to 39 per 100,000 persons.

Who Can Get Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

Dermatitis herpetiformis occurs more commonly in males than females in the ratio of 2:1 in the second, third, or fourth decades. There may be a family history of autoimmune diseases such as pernicious anemia, thyroid disorders, type 1 diabetes, Addison disease, and alopecia. Genetic predisposition with human leukocyte antigen is also found.

What Are the Causes of Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, which plays a critical role in the pathogenesis of dermatitis herpetiformis. IgA (Immunoglobulin A) antibodies formed against this protein in the predisposed individuals are thought to cross-react with certain antigens of the dermal-epidermal junction, leading to the clinical expression of the disease. Most patients with this condition probably have some gastrointestinal abnormality, such as diarrhea, weight loss, tiredness, and abdominal discomfort, similar to celiac disease. The patients with coeliac disease have concurrent dermatitis herpetiformis and tend to have more intestinal pathology.

What Are the Clinical Features of Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

  • Dermatitis herpetiformis is either an erythematous papule such as an urticaria-like plaque or, most commonly, a vesicle. It initially appears as petechiae, which progresses further to form papular lesions.

  • The patchy lesion can sometimes resemble lesions of other inflammatory skin conditions such as dermatitis, scabies, etc.

  • The lesions are usually itchy and located symmetrically on the elbows, knees, shoulders, lower back, and buttocks.

  • The face and facial hairline may also be involved.

  • They often appear in clusters, and large bulla is infrequent.

  • The lesion resolves and leaves post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation.

What Are the Symptoms of Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

Some common symptoms are:

  • Skin Issues: This is the most common symptom of this condition, and it affects the skin. Discolored bumps and itchy and burning blisters may be present.

  • Oral Issues: This condition can also affect the enamel of the tooth. There may be pitting, discoloration, or grooves present on the tooth. In rare conditions, canker sores may be present.

  • Gastrointestinal Issues: Most people with this condition are sensitive to gluten and suffer from celiac issues. This condition can damage the small intestine.

What Are the Complications of Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

In Gastrointestinal Tract:

  • Steatorrhea (excess stool fat) and D-xylose malabsorption are observed in 20 % to 33 % of patients.

  • Iron and folate malabsorption leading to anemia is rare.

  • DH patients also have an increased incidence of achlorhydria (absence of hydrochloric acid in gastric secretions) and atrophic gastritis (inflammation of gastric mucosa).

  • Malignancy: There is an increased frequency of gastrointestinal lymphomas and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in dermatitis herpetiformis patients.

  • Neurological Problems: They can have ataxia (loss of balance), epilepsy (seizures), and polyneuropathy (damage to the peripheral nerves).

  • Heart Problems: Cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart) can occur.

Autoimmune Diseases: These patients also have a high incidence of autoimmune diseases, such as:

How to Diagnose Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

  • Skin Biopsy: A skin biopsy is a confirmatory test for diagnosing dermatitis herpetiformis. The histologic features include:

  • Subepidermal blisters.

  • Neutrophils and eosinophils are present in the dermal layer.

  • IgA deposits are visible in the dermal layer through direct immunofluorescence.

  • Tests for Nutritional Deficiencies: Patients with coeliac disease are screened for nutritional deficiencies, such as complete blood count, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, folate levels, serum calcium levels, thyroid function tests, and liver function tests. Iron and folic acid levels are evaluated as mild anemia, possibly due to malabsorption associated with gluten-sensitive enteropathy. Thyroid function tests are recommended as thyroid diseases and dermatitis herpetiformis are associated with each other.

  • Autoantibody Tests: The specific tests include IgA anti-endosomal antibodies, IgA tissue transglutaminase antibody, IgA and IgG (Immunoglobulin G) gliadin assay, and total IgA level.

  • Small Intestinal Biopsy: The patients showing abnormal results in blood tests are subjected to intestinal biopsy to confirm gluten-sensitive enteropathy. The histology shows atrophy of the bowel, which indicates the flattening of the intestinal lining.

How to Treat Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

  • Dapsone: Dapsone is the drug of choice for dermatitis herpetiformis, which is usually 100 to 150 mg daily. Occasionally, patients will require double this dose. There is prompt relief of symptoms, and no new lesions erupt after one to two days of therapy. However, the patients must be on a minimal dose of Dapsone (sometimes as little as 25 mg on alternate days) because the disease activity increases sharply on cessation of treatment. If the patient is allergic or intolerant to Dapsone, ultra-potent topical steroids, systemic steroids, Sulfapyridine, and Rituximab can be taken.

  • Gluten-Free Diet: The intestinal lesions respond well to a gluten-free diet. Strict adherence to this diet will reduce the requirement for medication in most patients. It further improves gluten-sensitive enteropathy, nutrition, and bone density. In addition, the diet reduces the risk of developing autoimmune diseases. However, highly motivated individuals can adhere to this diet. Thus, do not take itchiness lightly, as it is common in most skin diseases.

How Long Will a Person Have Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

Dermatitis herpetiformis can persist lifelong unless diet modification is established.

Is Dermatitis Herpetiformis Contagious?

Dermatitis herpetiformis is non-contagious, like any other type of dermatitis. It cannot spread from one person to another.

When to Consult a Healthcare Provider for Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

If the person feels any symptoms of dermatitis herpetiformis, it is good to report it to the healthcare provider immediately. The itchy feeling of the condition can affect the quality of life. Try consulting a dermatologist initially who would recommend some diagnostic tests. And if the person has a nutritional deficiency, the nutritionist will follow up. Getting identified and treated earlier is the best choice.


Living with visible bumps and blisters is more complex than adapting to a new diet. Therefore, whenever a person gets tempted by their favorite food, remember it is worth avoiding them rather than suffering from those itchy blisters. Do not modify the diet and take medicines without consulting a doctor. Consult the specialist and take necessary precautions with their consent. Stay gluten-free, stay dermatitis herpetiformis-free.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Appearance of Herpetiformis Dermatitis?

Herpetiformis dermatitis appears like clusters of itchy bumps that may appear similar to eczema or acne. It is characterized by clustered vesicles and papules that erupt symmetrically on the knees, elbows, back, buttocks, scalp, or back. It may be associated with a burning sensation.


Is Dermatitis Herpetiformis Curable?

There is no cure for dermatitis herpetiformis. Medications can help in healing the rash associated with dermatitis herpetiformis. The bumps and itching may subside within one to three days.


Does Dermatitis Herpetiformis Spread From One Person to Another?

It spreads from one person to another by direct skin contact. The disease is usually rare and is associated with long-term skin problems. A person may get dermatitis herpetiformis when the body is sensitive to gluten.


Can a Person Have Dermatitis Herpetiformis Without Celiac Disease?

Most people with dermatitis herpetiformis are sensitive to gluten and develop celiac disease. In some people without celiac disease, gluten can cause allergy-like reactions that include itchy rashes called dermatitis herpetiformis.


Is Dermatitis Considered an Autoimmune Disease?

Dermatitis herpetiformis is considered one of the autoimmune diseases that is triggered by eating gluten. It most commonly causes blistering, itching, and burning rash. Males are commonly affected by this disease, and it commonly occurs in the age group of 30 years.


Where Does Initiation of Dermatitis Herpetiformis Happen?

Dermatitis herpetiformis is characterized by clustered vesicles and papules that can start from any of the areas like the scalp, back, knees, elbow, and buttocks. Sometimes the groin and face can also be involved. It can last for weeks to months.


What Is the Appearance of Gluten Skin Rash?

Gluten rash includes rash that looks like raised or blisters, sores that look like hives, and appears in the group. The rash forms myriad tiny reddish-purple bumps that take several days to heal. Gluten rash is an autoimmune condition that appears in people with celiac disease because of gluten sensitivity.


How Long After Eating Gluten Do the Symptoms Begin?

After two hours of eating, the person experiences nausea, the most reliable indicator of substantial gluten consumption. Gluten intolerance can make a person sick after eating gluten. The person may feel gassy or bloated. Gluten intolerance often shows symptoms similar to that of celiac disease.


After How Long Does the Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance Start?

The symptoms of gluten develop suddenly, last for weeks to months, and can be associated with digestive system problems such as celiac disease. It is a chronic inflammatory disease that produces lesions that itch and burn. Dermatitis herpetiformis is characterized by vesicles and papules that erupt symmetrically on the knees, buttocks, back, scalp, and elbow.


Can a Gluten Rash Disappear on Its Own?

Most people manage the gluten rash condition with a gluten-free diet and use medications to treat the rash. It may take six to 24 months after removing gluten from the diet for the rash to disappear. Gluten rash leaves yellow or brown stains on the skin even after its disappearance.


Does Dermatitis Herpetiformis Respond to Various Steroids?

Some topical steroids are effective in mild cases of dermatitis herpetiformis, but numerous cases progress and undergo chronic cases. Dermatitis herpetiformis is treated with an oral antibiotic called Dapsone. It relieves itching within an hour.


Can a Person Suddenly Develop Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

Dermatitis herpetiformis usually develops suddenly and lasts for weeks to months, and sometimes can be associated with digestive problems such as celiac disease. It is a chronic inflammatory disease that produces itch and burns intensely. It mostly affects the age group between 30 years to 40 years.


Is Dermatitis Herpetiformis Confused With Psoriasis?

The appearance of dermatitis herpetiformis is mistaken for the appearance of psoriasis. Both conditions may lead to raised skin, redness, and itchy skin. The scales on psoriasis plaques are usually thicker than dermatitis herpetiformis, having more defined edges.


What Leads to the Trigger of Dermatitis Herpetiformis?

Sensitivity to gluten triggers the condition of dermatitis herpetiformis. Gluten is found in common food such as rye, barley, and wheat. The triggered reactions lead to the formation of a rash on the skin.


Is Dermatitis Herpetiformis One of the Forms of Eczema?

Dermatitis herpetiformis and eczema are both chronic skin conditions. Dermatitis herpetiformis occurs due to severe gluten intolerance, whereas eczema occurs because of a response to various allergies. Both conditions include raised skin, itchy rash, discoloration, and redness.
Dr. Suvash Sahu
Dr. Suvash Sahu



autoimmune disordergluten-free dietdermatitis herpetiformissevere itchingceliac disease
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