Dermatitis herpetiformis

Baillieres Clin Gastroenterol. 1995 Jun;9(2):371-93. doi: 10.1016/0950-3528(95)90036-5.


Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) is a relatively rare skin disorder with an estimated incidence of 1:10,000 in the UK. It is characterized by urticarial plaques and blisters on the elbows, buttocks, and knees, although other sites may also be involved. The eruption tends to be persistent: only 10-15% of patients have spontaneous remission over a 25-year study period. The disease is characterized by the presence of IgA deposits in the upper dermis of uninvolved skin and the diagnosis should not be made in the absence of these deposits. Two-thirds of patients have a small intestinal enteropathy with villous atrophy as seen in coeliac disease (CD). However, the remaining third also show evidence of a gluten sensitivity in the intestine, as judged by increased lymphocytic infiltration of the epithelium. Villous atrophy also ensues after gluten challenge in those patients with previous normal villous architecture. The initial treatment of the rash is with one of the following three drugs, dapsone, sulphapyridine or sulphamethoxypyridazine. However, the rash also clears with gluten withdrawal. It must be stressed, however, that the average time to achieve significant reduction in drug requirements is 6 months and it can be over 2 years before drugs are no longer required. On re-introduction of gluten the eruption recurs. Patients with DH have a high incidence of auto-immune disorders, thyroid disease, pernicious anaemia, and insulin-dependent diabetes, and should be screened for those diseases on a yearly basis. As with coeliac disease there is also an increased incidence of lymphoma and a gluten-free diet appears to protect patients from this complication. The mechanism by which gluten causes the skin lesions has still to be elucidated, but current investigations implicate lymphocytes and cytokines in the pathogenesis. The original hypothesis of an antigen-antibody reaction in the skin with complement activation causing the skin lesions, may not be correct.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biopsy
  • Celiac Disease / diagnosis*
  • Celiac Disease / diet therapy
  • Celiac Disease / genetics
  • Celiac Disease / pathology
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis / diagnosis*
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis / diet therapy
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis / genetics
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis / pathology
  • Diseases in Twins
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Glutens / administration & dosage
  • Glutens / adverse effects*
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II / genetics
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin A / analysis
  • Intestinal Mucosa / pathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Skin / pathology


  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II
  • Immunoglobulin A
  • Glutens