US Pharm. 2012;37(4):HS11-HS18.
Adverse drug reactions (ADRs) are a major health concern, and occur in 0.1% to 1% of patients taking systemic medications.1,2 The incidence of fatalities due to all drug reactions for hospitalized patients has been documented to be 0.3%.2
skin is the largest organ in the body, and adverse skin reactions due
to drug exposure are a common problem. Approximately 2% of drug-induced
skin eruptions meet the World Health Organization definition of a
serious reaction.1,3 The exact mechanism for many of the
drug-induced cutaneous diseases is not fully understood and may result
from both immune and nonimmune mechanisms. Properties of a drug that
increase the risk of a drug-induced hypersensitivity reaction are: 1)
molecular weight >4,000 Da (e.g., insulin, erythropoietin); 2)
presence of foreign proteins or large polypeptides of nonhuman origin
(streptokinase, beef or pork insulin, chimeric/murine-derived monoclonal
antibodies); or 3) the ability of the parent drug or its active
metabolite to bind to a carrier protein and form a complete antigen
(penicillins and sulfonamides).4
Drug-induced skin disorders are often classified as either
acute or chronic. Acute diseases include erythematous eruptions;
urticaria, angioedema, and anaphylaxis; fixed-drug eruptions;
hypersensitivity syndrome; Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) and toxic
epidermal necrolysis (TEN); warfarin-induced skin necrosis; vasculitis;
serum sickness–like reaction; acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis
(AGEP); and photosensitivity. Chronic disorders include drug-induced
lupus, drug-induced acne, and pigmentary changes.
Acute Drug-Induced Skin Disorders
Erythematous Reactions: These reactions are the most common ADRs involving the skin.5
This eruption is considered a type IV delayed cell-mediated
hypersensitivity reaction. The eruption typically occurs 4 to 14 days
after the causative drug is initiated; however, the reaction may occur 1
to 2 days after discontinuation of the drug.1,5 Upon a second exposure, the eruption may occur more rapidly.
Lesions are symmetric erythematous macules or papules,
which may be pruritic and usually develop on the trunk or upper
extremities before progressing and becoming more confluent.5,6 Patients may experience a low-grade fever; however, mucous membranes are not typically involved.
Drugs that are more likely to cause this type of eruption
include penicillins, cephalosporins, sulfonamides, anticonvulsants, and
allopurinol (TABLE 1).5,6 Primary treatment involves
discontinuing the causative agent; however, if the drug is required for
essential therapy, consideration may be given to continuation of the
agent unless symptoms associated with the eruption suggest a more
serious reaction. Topical corticosteroids, systemic corticosteroids, or
antipruritic agents may also be considered. The eruption generally
resolves within 7 to 14 days after the causative agent is discontinued.6 The rash should be monitored for the first 48 hours to ensure that more severe complications/reactions are not occurring.5
Differential diagnoses for patients presenting with this eruption
include viral eruptions (e.g., Epstein-Barr virus, herpesvirus type 6),
eruptions from a bacterial toxin, acute graft-versus-host disease, and
Urticaria, Angioedema, and Anaphylaxis: Urticaria (hives) is a common, acute, transient reaction sometimes referred to as the cutaneous expression of anaphylaxis.5,6 It is characterized by pruritic monomorphic erythematous and edematous papules and plaques.1,5,6
The onset of symptoms is rapid, sometimes within minutes, and the
papules and plaques last from a few hours to 24 hours. New lesions,
however, may continually develop. In contrast, angioedema is defined by
involvement of dermal and subcutaneous tissues and is described as pale
or pink swelling that affects the face, buccal mucosa, tongue, larynx,
and pharynx. Anaphylaxis may complicate urticaria and angioedema and may
involve additional body systems, leading to shock and death. Urticaria,
angioedema, and anaphylaxis are a consequence of either an
immunoglobulin E (IgE)–mediated type 1 hypersensitivity reaction or an
anaphylactoid mechanism involving histamine or other inflammatory
mediators. Management of this reaction consists of discontinuing the
causative agent. Histamine receptor (H1) blockers, systemic corticosteroids, and epinephrine may also be required acutely.
Many drugs have been implicated in causing urticaria and/or angioedema (TABLE 1).1,4-6
Examples of anaphylactoid reactions include responses to radiocontrast
media, opiate-induced urticaria, and vancomycin-induced red man
Fixed-Drug Eruptions: These eruptions present as pruritic, red, raised lesions that may blister or develop into plaques.1,6 A burning or stinging sensation may also be noted.6
Lesions typically develop in minutes to days of drug initiation and
typically resolve within days; however, hyperpigmentation may remain for
months.1,5 The lesions may develop anywhere on the body and may include the mucous membranes.1 When the causative agent (TABLE 1) is readministered, the lesions recur in the same area as the primary eruption.1,6 Removal of the offending drug is the primary treatment.1 The mechanism for this eruption is unknown.1,5,6
Drug Hypersensitivity Syndrome: This syndrome, also known as drug rash with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms (DRESS), is a severe exanthematous eruption with fever, lymphadenopathy, and multi-organ involvement.5,6
DRESS occurs more frequently in persons of African descent and may be
fatal if not appropriately treated. Rash and fever are usually the first
symptoms. The face, upper trunk, and extremities are originally
involved, with inclusion of facial edema.6 Severe hepatitis
is responsible for many of the fatalities associated with this syndrome.
Predominant eosinophilia is common, and aminotransferase, alkaline
phosphatase, and/or bilirubin levels are elevated in approximately 50%
of patients.5 DRESS typically occurs 1 to 6 weeks after introduction of the causative agent.5,6
Drugs commonly associated with DRESS are listed in TABLE 1.5,6 The incidence of the syndrome is estimated to be between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 10,000 for patients exposed to anticonvulsants.5
Early discontinuation of the offending drug is critical but may not
lead to a complete recovery. Treatment may include topical
corticosteroids for skin symptoms and systemic corticosteroids when the
heart and lungs are affected. A relapse of the rash and hepatitis may
occur when corticosteroids are tapered. The rash and visceral
involvement may remain for several weeks after removal of the offending
Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS) and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN): SJS and TEN are rare, life-threatening syndromes.5-7 The eruptions are drug-induced approximately 70% of the time.5
The incidence of SJS is estimated to be 1 to 7.1 cases per million
person-years, while the incidence of TEN is thought to be 0.4 to 1.2
cases per million person-years.5,7,8 The risk is greatest in those patients infected with HIV.
In much of the literature, SJS and TEN are considered a spectrum of drug-induced skin disorders.5,7,8
The definitions of the two syndromes have evolved over the years. The
percentage of skin detachment determines the classification. Less than
10% of body surface area (BSA) with skin detachment is classified as
SJS, while 10% to 30% of affected BSA is referred to as SJS/TEN overlap,
and greater than 30% of affected BSA is classified as TEN.
The exact mechanisms are not understood; however, early
lesion immunopathologic patterns infer a cell-mediated cytotoxic
reaction to epidermal cells.5 A genetic propensity for SJS
and TEN may exist, as documented by a strong association between the
human leukocyte antigen HLA-B*1502 allele and carbamazepine-induced SJS,
and between the HLA-B*5801 allele and allopurinol-induced SJS in the
Han Chinese population.5,7
Symptoms are very acute, and begin within 4 weeks of drug exposure.5,6
Symptoms have also been documented to occur days after drug withdrawal.
The eruption occurs even more rapidly when the causative agent is
rechallenged. Initial symptoms include a prodromal phase of fever, sore
throat, and stinging eyes.5-7 The skin blisters and mucous
erosions occur 1 to 2 days later, with extensive epidermal detachment
and sloughing. The rash may cover the entire body. Initially, the
lesions are irregularly shaped, erythematous, purpuric macules that
progressively coalesce. Patients exhibit a positive Nikolsky’s sign and
flaccid blisters form. Necrotic epidermis detachment occurs. The mucous
membranes (buccal, ocular, nasal, and genital) are affected in at least
85% of patients.5,8 Additionally, epithelium of the
gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts may be involved. Patients may
also have increased hepatic enzymes and leukopenia; however, the
syndromes are not typically associated with eosinophilia. A marked loss
of fluids, a drop in blood pressure, electrolyte disturbances, and
infection may occur.6 SJS is fatal in 5% to 10% of patients and TEN is fatal in >30% of patients.5,7 Discontinuation of the causative agent is vital. Treatment is symptomatic and supportive.5-8 No other treatments are universally accepted, as the use of corticosteroids and other therapies is controversial.5-7
Over 100 drugs have been implicated as a cause of SJS or TEN.3,5,6,9 The more commonly associated agents are provided in TABLE 1.3,5-7,9
Warfarin-Induced Skin Necrosis: Warfarin tissue necrosis is a rare but serious disorder that may occur 3 to 5 days after the initiation of warfarin.5
Red, painful plaques form that develop into necrosis, hemorrhagic
blisters, and ulcers. Necrosis occurs in approximately 1 in 10,000
patients exposed to warfarin. Patients are at increased risk if a
hereditary deficit in protein C is present, due to the hypercoagulable
state during initiation of therapy. The mainstay of treatment is
typically supportive. Warfarin should be discontinued and vitamin K,
heparin, and monoclonal antibody–purified protein C concentrate
Drug-Induced Vasculitis (DIV): This is defined as any case of inflammatory vasculitis caused by a specific drug.10 The exact mechanism is unknown.5,10
Patients may present with palpable purpuric lesions or a maculopapular
rash. Ulcers, nodules, hemorrhagic blisters, or Raynaud’s disease may
also be present, and additional organ systems may be involved.5 DIV may occur 7 to 21 days after initial drug exposure; however, the interval may be variable.5,11 Withdrawal of the causative agent (TABLE 1) may lead to rapid resolution. For more severe cases, corticosteroids or immunosuppressive drugs may be required.10 Drugs from almost every class have been associated with DIV.
Serum Sickness–Like Reactions: These reactions present with fever, an urticarial rash, arthralgias, and lymphadenopathy.5,6
The reaction occurs 1 to 3 weeks post initial drug exposure. Immune
complexes, vasculitis, and renal lesions are not present. It is
estimated that 1 in 2,000 children exposed to cefaclor may experience
this reaction.5 Additionally, minocycline, penicillins, and propranolol have been documented to induce a serum sickness–like reaction (TABLE 1).
The causative agent should be discontinued. Systemic corticosteroids
may be required for treatment over 5 days for severe symptoms.4
Acute Generalized Exanthematous Pustulosis (AGEP): AGEP is a rare, acute, pustular eruption.1,5,6,12 While the etiology may be viral or a reaction to mercury, greater than 90% of cases are drug induced.1,5
AGEP is characterized by a fever and diffuse erythema. Burning and
itching accompany the eruption. Patients may experience facial edema,
swelling of the hands, and mucous membrane involvement. Small and mostly
nonfollicular pustules develop. The eruption may last 1 to 2 weeks and
is followed by superficial desquamation. Drugs frequently associated
with AGEP are included in TABLE 1. Treatment consists of drug
withdrawal, topical corticosteroids, and occasionally a systemic
antipruritic agent or brief use of systemic corticosteroids.
Photosensitivity: This is an adverse
cutaneous reaction triggered by doses of sunlight that are normally
harmless. It may be idiopathic or result from either endogenous
photosensitizers or exogenous causes, such as drugs.5,13-16
Photosensitivity reactions may manifest as either a photo-allergic or
phototoxic reaction. Some drugs are capable of producing both types of
Phototoxic reactions are common and often predictable.5,13,16 Drugs that induce a phototoxic reaction absorb ultraviolet A (UVA) light; no immunologic mechanisms are involved.5,6,14,15 Phototoxicity is characterized by
rapid onset of a burning sensation.14,15 Clinically, patients present with an exaggerated sunburn, followed by hyperpigmentation.5,13
This reaction occurs only on sun-exposed skin. Less common clinical
forms of the reaction are photo-onycholysis (phototoxicity involving the
nails) and pseudoporphyria (a bullous photosensitivity disorder).
Photoallergy is less common than phototoxicity and is a result of
cell-mediated hypersensitivity.5,6,13,14 Photoallergy occurs from UVA transformation of drugs into allergens.6 This reaction may involve exposed skin and skin that is not exposed to the sun.5,6,13,14
Unlike the more immediate phototoxic reaction, photoallergy may not
present until 24 to 72 hours post sun exposure. A photoallergy
clinically appears as an acute, subacute, or chronic dermatitis.13
Many drugs have been documented to cause photosensitivity reactions (TABLE 1). Treatment includes discontinuation of the causative agent and avoidance of sun exposure.5,6
Topical corticosteroids and systemic antipruritic therapies may be
utilized in some circumstances. The use of sunscreens that block both
UVA and UVB is important; however, in some patients sunscreen is the
Chronic Drug-Induced Skin Disorders
Drug-Induced Lupus (DIL): This rare adverse effect occurs in approximately 15,000 to 30,000 individuals per year in the United States.17
Though several hypotheses have been postulated for the development of
DIL, the pathogenic mechanism remains unclear. Drugs considered lupus
inducing vary in pharmacologic and chemical characteristics, and some
agents have stronger evidence for a causal relationship. Drugs
associated with lupus are categorized as high risk, moderate risk, low
risk, and risk
yet to be categorized (TABLE 1).
The most prevalent clinical findings of DIL are
musculoskeletal (e.g., arthralgias, myalgias, arthritis) and
constitutional (e.g., fever, malaise, anorexia, weight loss) symptoms.17,18
Certain agents are more closely linked with specific clinical findings
of hepatic abnormalities, pleuritis, and cutaneous symptoms.17
Cutaneous symptoms such as the classic butterfly rash are rare in DIL,
except in the case of quinidine and hydralazine, which have incidence
rates of 39% and 10% to 34%, respectively. The onset of signs and
symptoms of DIL can be acute, but is more often seen as a slow, gradual
process, developing months after initiation of the causative agent.17,18 Rechallenge with the offending agent may produce symptoms within 1 to 2 days.17
Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE), a form of
drug-induced lupus, is most commonly associated with antihypertensives
(calcium channel blockers, ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, and thiazide
diuretics), HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, oral antifungals (terbinafine,
griseofulvin), antidepressants (bupropion), and tumor necrosis factor
(TNF) inhibitors (etanercept, infliximab, adalimumab).5,19 Drug-induced SCLE (DI-SCLE) presents with similar clinical and serologic symptoms as idiopathic lupus20; the typical rash is photodistributed in an annular or a papulosquamous form, with or without scaling.19,21
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) typically presents in
women of childbearing age, whereas individuals presenting with DIL are
characteristically of advanced age, with an equal distribution between
males and females (with the exception of minocycline-induced lupus), and
Caucasian.18,20 DIL may also have a higher predominance in
individuals who are slow drug acetylators. The risk of the development
of DIL does not preclude the use of associated agents in clinical
decisions because of its reversibility. DIL typically resolves within
weeks after the removal of the causative agent.17,18 Corticosteroids or immunosuppressive therapy may be required in more severe cases, but typically is not necessary.
Drug-Induced Acne (Acneiform Eruption): Drug-induced acne accounts for approximately 1% of drug-induced skin reactions.5 Pustular eruptions are typically observed on the face and upper trunk.5,6
Comedones are not commonly documented with this type of outbreak. The
eruption occurs 1 to 3 weeks after the causative agent is initiated.
Drug-induced acne is associated with the use of various agents (TABLE 1). Inhaled corticosteroids in patients with asthma have also been documented to cause acne.22
Topical acne treatment may be utilized to treat the eruption, which is
typically reversible once the causative drug is withdrawn.4,22
Drug-Induced Pigmentary Changes: Pigmentary
changes induced by various drugs may be caused by different mechanisms,
including the enhancement of melanin production, the deposition of
drugs or metabolites, or the postinflammatory changes secondary to
phototoxicity.5 The effects are more likely to be observed on
areas exposed to the sun. Drugs commonly associated with
hyperpigmentation, hypopigmentation, and depigmentation are given in TABLE 1.5 Pigmentary changes may fade over time or may be permanent in a small number of patients.23
While not all skin reactions are drug induced, it is
important for health care providers to recognize the characteristics and
common causative agents for various acute and chronic drug-induced skin
disorders. Patients presenting with a skin rash or skin lesions should
be thoroughly assessed for the possibility of such a relationship and,
if one is found, should be treated (if necessary) and educated regarding
the drug-induced skin disorder (TABLE 2). The reaction should be
properly documented, and if it is allergy mediated, the patient should
be counseled to avoid further exposure. The likelihood of developing a
drug-induced skin disorder should not preclude the use of particular
agents in most individuals; however, extensive efforts should be taken
by all members of the health care team to ensure safe use of medications
in those individuals who have previously experienced a drug-induced
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2. Lazarou J, Pomeranz BH, Corey PN. Incidence of adverse
drug reactions in hospitalized patients: a meta-analysis of prospective
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3. Roujeau JC, Kelly JP, Naldi L, et al. Medication use and the risk of Stevens-Johnson syndrome or toxic epidermal necrolysis. N Engl J Med. 1995;333:1600-1607.
4. Sylvia LM. Drug allergy, pseudoallergy, and cutaneous diseases. In: Tisdale JE, Miller DA, eds. Drug-Induced Diseases: Prevention, Detection, and Management. 2nd ed. Bethesda, MD: American Society of Health-System Pharmacists; 2010:51-97.
5. Valeyrie-Allanore L, Sassolas B, Roujeau JC. Drug-induced skin, nail, and hair disorders. Drug Saf. 2007;30:1011-1030.
6. Law RM, Law DTS. In: Dipiro JT, Talbert RL, Yee GC, et al, eds. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiologic Approach. 8th ed. New York, NY: The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc; 2008:1661-1672.
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10. Merkel PA. Drug-induced vasculitis. Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2001;27:849-862.
11. ten Holder SM, Joy MS, Falk RJ. Cutaneous and systemic manifestations of drug-induced vasculitis. Ann Pharmacother. 2002;36:130-147.
12. Mockenhaupt M. Severe drug-induced skin reactions: clinical pattern, diagnostics and therapy. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2009;7:142-162.
13. Gould JW, Mercurio MG, Elmets CA. Cutaneous photosensitivity diseases induced by exogenous agents.
J Am Acad Dermatol. 1995;33:551-573.
14. Dufner KS, Buss LA, Kizito J. Drug-induced photosensitivity. Hosp Pharm. 2006;41:196-206.
15. Vassileva SG, Mateev G, Parish LC. Antimicrobial photosensitive reactions. Arch Intern Med. 1998;158:1993-2000.
16. Allen JE. Drug-induced photosensitivity. Clin Pharm. 1993;12:580-587.
17. Borchers AT, Keen CL, Gershwin ME. Drug-induced lupus. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2007;1108:166-182.
18. Rubin RL. Drug-induced lupus. Toxicology. 2005;209:135-147.
19. Chang C, Gershwin ME. Drug-induced lupus erythematosus. Drug Saf. 2011;34:357-374.
20. Vasoo S. Lupus. Lupus. 2006;15:757-761.
21. Hsu S, Le EH, Khoshevis MR. Differential diagnosis of annular lesions. Am Fam Physician. 2001;64:289-296.
22. Monk B, Cunliffe WJ, Layton AM, Rhodes DJ. Acne induced by inhaled corticosteroids. Clin Exp Dermatol. 1993;18:148-150.
23. Dereure O. Drug-induced skin pigmentation: epidemiology, diagnosis and treatment. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2001;2:253-262.
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