Dermatologic Reactions to Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors : Skin Toxicities and Immunotherapy

Am J Clin Dermatol. 2018 Jun;19(3):345-361. doi: 10.1007/s40257-017-0336-3.


The development of immune checkpoint inhibitors [monoclonal antibodies targeting cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen-4 (CTLA-4), programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) or programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1)] represents a major breakthrough in cancer therapy. Although they present a favorable risk/benefit ratio, immune checkpoint blockade therapies have a very specific safety profile. Due to their unique mechanism of action, they entail a new spectrum of adverse events that are mostly immune related [immune-related adverse events (irAEs)], notably mediated by the triggering of cytotoxic CD4+/CD8+ T cell activation. Cutaneous toxicities appear to be one of the most prevalent irAEs, both with anti-PD-1 and anti-CTLA-4 agents or with the newly developed anti-PD-L1 agents, which corresponds to a class effect. They are observed in more than one-third of the treated patients, mainly in the form of a maculopapular rash (eczema-like spongiotic dermatitis) and pruritus. A wide range of other dermatologic manifestations can also occur, including lichenoid reactions, psoriasis, acneiform rashes, vitiligo-like lesions, autoimmune skin diseases (e.g., bullous pemphigoid, dermatomyositis, alopecia areata), sarcoidosis or nail and oral mucosal changes. In addition, the use of anti-CTLA-4 and anti-PD-1 therapies in combination is associated with the development of more frequent, more severe and earlier cutaneous irAEs compared to single agents. In most cases, these dysimmune dermatologic adverse events remain self-limiting and readily manageable. Early recognition and adequate management, however, are critical to prevent exacerbation of the lesions, to limit treatment interruption and to minimize quality of life impairment. This review describes the variable clinical and histopathologic aspects of dermatologic irAEs induced by immune checkpoint inhibitors. Appropriate treatment and counseling are also proposed, with a step-by-step approach for optimized management by both practicing oncologists and dermatologists.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Immunological / adverse effects*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / epidemiology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / therapy
  • B7-H1 Antigen / antagonists & inhibitors
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Dermatologic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Drug Eruptions / diagnosis
  • Drug Eruptions / epidemiology
  • Drug Eruptions / etiology*
  • Drug Eruptions / pathology
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / adverse effects
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Incidence
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Phototherapy / methods
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Quality of Life
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Skin / drug effects*
  • Skin / immunology
  • Skin / pathology
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Withholding Treatment


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Immunological
  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • CD274 protein, human
  • CTLA-4 Antigen
  • CTLA4 protein, human
  • Dermatologic Agents
  • PDCD1 protein, human
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor