PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Epidermolysis bullosa (EB) represents a group of inherited disorders with blister formation in response to mechanical trauma. EB is caused by mutations in at least 18 genes, leading to a broad spectrum of diseases with different risks for the development of specific extracutaneous complications and/or premature death.
EB is a wide spectrum of inherited diseases and a search of Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) for that title gives 80 results. EB varies from mild to very severe and even lethal. The mild forms are all of autosomal dominant inheritance. EB is classified according to skin morphology to give four major categories:
- Epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS) involves intra-epidermal skin separation.
- Junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB) involves skin separation in the lamina lucida or central basement membrane zone.
- Dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (DEB) involves separation of the basement membrane zone at the sublamina densa.
- Hemidesmosomal epidermolysis bullosa (HEB) produces blistering at the hemidesmosomal level in the most superior aspect of the basement membrane zone.
Epidermolysis bullosa acquisita (EBA) is a chronic autoimmune subepidermal blistering disease of the skin and mucous membranes, causing blisters, scars and milia, mainly in the areas of skin prone to trauma. EBA is rare in humans.
- Population studies are complicated by the fact that this is not a uniform disease but a wide number of diseases of varying severity. It is likely that many patients with the more mild forms of EB remain undiagnosed.
- It is thought to affect 1 in 17,000 births. Around 5,000 people are affected in the UK.
- Males and females are equally affected.
A positive family history increases the risk, depending upon the type of inheritance and the closeness of affected relatives.
Epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS) usually has little or no extracutaneous involvement, while the more severe hemidesmosomal, junctional and dystrophic forms of EB may produce significant multiorgan system involvement.
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- Presentation is usually at or shortly after birth but may be delayed in milder cases.
- Note the age of onset, the site of blisters and the degree of trauma required to initiate them.
- Note mucous membranes, including oral, respiratory, genitourinary, nasopharyngeal and ocular surfaces.
- Severe EB is associated with growth restriction, oesophageal strictures and other gastrointestinal abnormalities.
- Urological abnormalities have also been noted.
Inspect the skin and also conjunctival, oral and genital mucosa. Note the size, location, and character of blisters. Try to assess the general level at which lesions split. Usually, superficial blisters produce crusted erosions, intra-epidermal blisters are flaccid and may expand under pressure; intralamina lucida blisters are tense and heal with atrophy but no scarring. Sublamina densa blisters heal with scarring. Look at nails, hair and teeth.
Epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS)
EBS is a collection of disorders of keratin that produces intra-epidermal blistering with little internal involvement. Lesions usually heal without scarring. The more severe EBS subtypes include Köbner, Dowling-Meara and Weber-Cockayne forms:
- Mild EBS of the Weber-Cockayne subtype is the most common. Blisters are usually caused by an obvious (although often mild) traumatic event. Examples may include tight-fitting underwear, writing for extended periods and using adhesive dressings or plasters. They can be mild to severe and most often occur on the palms and soles. Hyperhidrosis may also occur.
- Severe EBS usually has a generalised onset with blisters at or shortly after birth. Hands, feet and extremities tend to be involved. Palmoplantar hyperkeratosis and erosions are common, especially in Köbner EBS. Dowling-Meara EBS involves oral mucosa and produces groups of herpetiform blisters. It is sometimes called EBS herpetiformis.
Junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB)
JEB is divided into three subgroups or types. They are, in decreasing order of severity, Herlitz (or JEB letalis), a non-lethal subtype named JEB mitis and a milder type called generalised atrophic benign EB (GABEB):
- The Herlitz, or letalis, form shows generalised blistering at birth. There are characteristic erosions around the mouth, eyes and nostrils, often with significant hypertrophic granulation tissue. Other involvement includes the corneal, conjunctival, tracheobronchial, oral, pharyngeal, oesophageal, rectal and genitourinary mucosa. Internal complications may produce a hoarse cry, cough and respiratory difficulty. There is risk of death from sepsis or other complications due to epithelial dysfunction, and they usually die in infancy.
- Non-lethal JEB, or JEB mitis, produces generalised blistering in those who survive infancy and clinically improves with age. They do not normally have the same hoarse cry or other respiratory symptoms as with the Herlitz form. Scalp, nail, and tooth abnormalities may become apparent. Mucous membranes are often affected by erosions that can produce strictures. Some patients with JEB mitis have blistering only in the intertriginous zones.
- GABEB is a relatively mild form with generalised cutaneous blistering that presents at birth. It is worse in a hot environment and blisters heal with a distinctive atrophic appearance. Extracutaneous involvement is rare, except for teeth. Hypoplastic enamel formation causes tooth decay. Nail dystrophy and alopecia are also common. They have a normal life expectancy and ability to reproduce.
Dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (DEB)
DEB is a group of diseases in which blisters heal with dystrophic scarring. Milia, little white papules of 1-4 mm in diameter, result from damage to hair follicles. Inheritance may be dominant or recessive. The recessive group varies from mild to severe:
- Dominantly inherited DEB (DDEB) usually appears at birth or during infancy, with generalised blistering. With increasing age, blistering becomes more local. A common variant described by Cockayne-Touraine has a peripheral distribution and minimal oral or tooth involvement. Another variant described by Pasini shows more extensive blistering, scar-like papules on the trunk (called albopapuloid lesions) and involvement of the oral mucosa and teeth. Dystrophic or absent nails are common in both of the dominantly inherited variants.
- Recessively inherited DEB (RDEB) covers a range of diseases from mild to severe:
- The localised form is called RDEB mitis. Peripheral areas and nails are often involved but there is little mucosal involvement. It is quite similar to the dominantly inherited forms.
- Severe RDEB, as described by Hallopeau-Siemens, gives generalised blistering at birth followed by extensive dystrophic scarring, especially on the extremities. This can produce pseudosyndactyly, also called mitten-hand deformity of the hands and feet. Flexion contractures of the extremities become more common with age. Nails and teeth also are affected. Involvement of internal mucosa can result in oesophageal strictures and webs, urethral and anal stenosis, phimosis, and corneal scarring. Malabsorption may produce a mixed anaemia from iron and folate deficiency and overall malnutrition may cause failure to thrive. If they survive to childhood they are at risk of developing aggressive squamous cell carcinomas in areas of chronic erosions. The genetic mutation causing RDEB has been identified. The degree of severity depends to some extent on the location of the mutation, although other familial and environmental factors are thought to play a part.
Hemidesmosomal epidermolysis bullosa (HEB)
The newly classified HEB includes two rare conditions:
- EB with congenital muscular dystrophy, which presents initially as variable blistering. The degree of blistering does not correlate with the severity of muscular dystrophy. Some patients may have dental abnormalities.
- EB with pyloric atresia, which has pyloric atresia at birth and usually severe generalised blistering. Prognosis is poor despite correction of the pyloric atresia because of extensive internal involvement. It is usually fatal in infancy but a few patients with a milder disease have survived into childhood.
As knowledge about the pathophysiology of EB has become more advanced, new variants of EB have been identified based on their specific genetic mutation.
- Skin biopsy is required. Routine microscopy may help to exclude other causes. To make the diagnosis, immunofluoresence is required and also electron microscopy.
- FBC and iron studies may be required in dystrophic types.
- Swabs should be taken to check for infection.
- Monitor height and weight on centile charts.
- Albumin may be low.
- If available, DNA mutation analysis may be performed.
- When a family has had gene mapping it is possible to make an antenatal diagnosis by chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis.
- Gastrointestinal imaging may be required - eg, if an oesophageal web is suspected.
See also separate Bullous Dermatoses (Blisters and Bullae) article.
- Benign familial pemphigus.
- Bullous pemphigoid.
- Congenital syphilis.
- Ectodermal dysplasia.
- Epidermolytic hyperkeratosis.
- Intrauterine infection with herpes simplex virus.
- Kindler's syndrome (a rare autosomal recessive genodermatosis characterised by congenital acral skin blistering, photosensitivity, progressive poikiloderma, and diffuse cutaneous atrophy). This is considered by some to be an EB subtype rather than a separate condition.
- Pemphigus vulgaris.
- Porphyria cutanea tarda.
- Shabbir's syndrome (an autosomal recessive epithelial disorder confined to the Punjabi Muslim population, characterised by cutaneous erosions, nail dystrophy and exuberant vascular granulation tissue in certain epithelia, especially conjunctiva and larynx).
- Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome.
- Staphylococcal pyoderma.
- Toxic epidermal necrolysis.
- There is not yet any specific cure for the disease but attention must be paid to facilitating wound healing. Prevention of trauma to the skin reduces blistering. A soft diet helps to reduce oral and oesophageal erosions. Steroids must be avoided and infections treated.
- Wound care is important. Do not let crusts and fluids build up, as they facilitate infection. Topical antibiotics may be required. Avoid adhesive tape.
- Surveillance of chronic lesions is important as they are susceptible to undergoing malignant change to squamous cell carcinoma. Such change often occurs at multiple sites. Surgical excision is required. These lesions tend to be aggressive.
- Oesophageal lesions can be difficult to treat. They are found in Hallopeau-Siemens and inverse recessively inherited DEB (RDEB) subtypes, Dowling-Meara, letalis EBS subtypes, and all JEB forms except localised and progressiva or neurotropica. One possible approach is to use phenytoin and oral steroid elixirs to reduce the symptoms of dysphagia, although generally steroids are avoided. If there is oral candidiasis, appropriate antifungal medication is helpful. Oesophageal dilatation may be required.
- Ophthalmic complications may occur in EBS, especially the Weber-Cockayne and Dowling-Meara subtypes. There may be recurrent blepharitis in one or both eyes along with bullous lesions of the conjunctivae. In JEB and Hallopeau-Siemens DEB there may be corneal ulcerations, corneal scarring, obliteration of tear ducts, and eyelid lesions. Corneal erosions require antibiotic ointment and cycloplegic agents to reduce ciliary spasm and provide comfort. Avoid using tape to patch the eye, as it may cause blistering of the skin under the adhesive.
- Elective tracheostomy should be considered for infants and children with those rare subtypes where airways embarrassment is a feature.
- Good dental hygiene and regular dental checks are recommended. Many patients with JEB and DEB develop dental caries because of enamel defects. Oral mucosal involvement can accompany severe forms of JEB and DEB. Avoid harsh mouthwashes containing alcohol. Normal saline rinses can help to clean the mucosal surfaces.
- Mitten-hand deformity may require surgical correction. Diligent postoperative care, with static and dynamic splinting, helps to delay the onset of recurrence.
- Because of the extensive skin damage, a diet high in calories, protein and vitamins is required. Malnutrition is especially liable in the dystrophic types.
- The exact form should be identified as well as possible and genetic counselling given. Prenatal testing is possible using fetal skin biopsy, chorionic villus sampling and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
- For the future, new treatments, based on a better understanding of the basement membrane zone and the genes responsible for its components, may include gene or protein therapy to counter the skin fragility. Furthermore, studies of cytokine levels suggest EB is a systemic disease and not just a cutaneous condition. This raises the possibility that biological therapies targeted at specific cytokines may be a prospect for the future.
- The effect on the quality of life is very marked and perhaps more so than with any other skin disease, particularly for the more severe forms of the disease.
- Death and disability are highly variable according to type of disease. Death in infancy can occur from infection. In the more severe recessive types, death from skin cancer is common between the ages of 15 and 35 but, in the milder, dominant forms, life expectancy is unaffected.
- With the Herlitz or letalis form of JEB, nearly 90% die in the first year of life. Sepsis, respiratory failure and failure to thrive are the main causes.
- Some subtypes, especially the milder EB forms, improve with age.
Further reading & references
- McGrath JA; Recently Identified Forms of Epidermolysis Bullosa. Ann Dermatol. 2015 Dec;27(6):658-66. doi: 10.5021/ad.2015.27.6.658. Epub 2015 Dec 7.
- Epidermolysis Bullosa; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
- Epidermolysis bullosa; DermNet NZ
- Varki R, Sadowski S, Pfendner E, et al; Epidermolysis bullosa. I. Molecular genetics of the junctional and hemidesmosomal variants. J Med Genet. 2006 Aug;43(8):641-52. Epub 2006 Feb 10.
- Epidermolysis bullosa acquisita; DermNet NZ
- Morgan CP et al; Development of Gene Therapies for Dominant Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa. Ulster Med J. 2009 Jan; 78(1): 65–74.
- Mellerio JE; Epidermolysis bullosa care in the United Kingdom. Dermatol Clin. 2010 Apr;28(2):395-6, xiv. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2010.02.015.
- Fine JD, Johnson LB, Weiner M, et al; Gastrointestinal complications of inherited epidermolysis bullosa: cumulative experience of the National Epidermolysis Bullosa Registry. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2008 Feb;46(2):147-58.
- Tammaro F, Calabrese R, Aceto G, et al; End-stage renal disease secondary to IgA nephropathy in recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa: a case report. Pediatr Nephrol. 2008 Jan;23(1):141-4. Epub 2007 Oct 23.
- Titeux M, Pendaries V, Tonasso L, et al; A frequent functional SNP in the MMP1 promoter is associated with higher disease severity in recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. Hum Mutat. 2008 Feb;29(2):267-76.
- Intong LR, Murrell DF; How to take skin biopsies for epidermolysis bullosa. Dermatol Clin. 2010 Apr;28(2):197-200, vii. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2009.12.002.
- Uitto J, Richard G; Progress in epidermolysis bullosa: genetic classification and clinical implications. Am J Med Genet C Semin Med Genet. 2004 Nov 15;131C(1):61-74.
- Pfendner EG et al; Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa. GeneReviews® [Internet]. Seattle (WA): University of Washington, Seattle; 1993-2016. 2008 Feb 22 [updated 2014 Jan 02].
- Epidermolysis Bullosa; BMJ Best Practice, 2015 (sign in required)
- Lai-Cheong JE, McGrath JA; Kindler syndrome. Dermatol Clin. 2010 Jan;28(1):119-24. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2009.10.013.
- McLean WH, Irvine AD, Hamill KJ, et al; An unusual N-terminal deletion of the laminin alpha3a isoform leads to the chronic granulation tissue disorder laryngo-onycho-cutaneous syndrome. Hum Mol Genet. 2003 Sep 15;12(18):2395-409. Epub 2003 Jul 15.
- International Consensus: Best Practice Guidelines for Skin and Wound Care in Epidermolysis Bullosa; DEBRA, 2012
- Fine J; Eye Involvement in Inherited Epidermolysis Bullosa: Experience of the National Epidermolysis Bullosa Registry. Sm. J. Opthal, VOL. 138, NO. 2, 2004.
- Orthodontic care for patients with epidermolysis bullosa; DEBRA, 2012
- Formsma SA, Maathuis CB, Robinson PH, et al; Postoperative hand treatment in children with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. J Hand Ther. 2008 Jan-Mar;21(1):80-4; quiz 85.
- Haynes L; Nutritional support for children with epidermolysis bullosa. Br J Nurs. 2006 Nov 9-22;15(20):1097-101.
- Fassihi H, Eady RA, Mellerio JE, et al; Prenatal diagnosis for severe inherited skin disorders: 25 years' experience. Br J Dermatol. 2006 Jan;154(1):106-13.
- Petrova A, Ilic D, McGrath JA; Stem cell therapies for recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. Br J Dermatol. 2010 Dec;163(6):1149-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2010.09981.x.
- Murauer EM, Koller U, Pellegrini G, et al; Advances in Gene/Cell Therapy in Epidermolysis Bullosa. Keio J Med. 2015;64(2):21-5. doi: 10.2302/kjm.2014-0013-RE. Epub 2015 Jun 6.
- Annicchiarico G, Morgese MG, Esposito S, et al; Proinflammatory Cytokines and Antiskin Autoantibodies in Patients With Inherited Epidermolysis Bullosa. Medicine (Baltimore). 2015 Oct;94(42):e1528. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000001528.
- Fine JD, Johnson LB, Weiner M, et al; Cause-specific risks of childhood death in inherited epidermolysis bullosa. J Pediatr. 2008 Feb;152(2):276-80. Epub 2007 Oct 22.
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Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Helen Huins