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Autoimmune blistering diseases

Last updated: July 12, 2021

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Autoimmune blistering diseases are skin conditions characterized by the formation of blisters, which are the result of the destruction of cellular or extracellular adhesion molecules by antibodies. The three most significant autoimmune blistering diseases are bullous pemphigoid, pemphigus vulgaris, and dermatitis herpetiformis. The most common among these is bullous pemphigoid, which leads to the formation of large, tense bullae. It is a chronic disease that mainly affects elderly individuals and responds well to treatment with steroids. Pemphigus vulgaris, which is characterized by fragile, superficial flaccid bullae that leave crusted erosions, is a rare condition that occurs mainly in middle-aged adults. In contrast to bullous pemphigoid, it is a severe condition that is more difficult to treat and can be fatal. Dermatitis herpetiformis mainly affects the extensor surfaces of the extremities and is associated with celiac disease. It has a chronic course that leads to the formation of intensely pruritic papules and vesicles. In addition to evaluating clinical appearance, the Nikolsky sign, Tzanck test, skin biopsy, and direct immunofluorescence are indicated to confirm the diagnosis. Serologic testing of autoantibodies may also be useful. Management usually consists of oral and topical steroids, as well as immunosuppressive therapy.

Bullous pemphigoid Pemphigus vulgaris Dermatitis herpetiformis
Clinical findings
  • Progression in stages
  • Pruritus is typically absent.
  • Lesions typically first present on the oral mucosa (> 50% of cases), then on body parts exposed to pressure (e.g., intertriginous areas)
  • Tense, grouped subepidermal vesicles, papules, and/or bullae (herpetiform appearance)
  • Intense pruritus
  • Bilateral, symmetrical distribution, commonly over elbows, knees, buttocks, shoulders, scalp
  • No mucosal involvement
Diagnostics Autoantibodies against
  • BPAg1 (BP230)
  • BPAg2 (BP180)
Tzanck test
  • Negative
  • Positive
  • Negative
Nikolsky's sign
  • Negative
  • Positive
  • Negative
Histology and immunohistochemistry
  • Benign disease, usually responds well to treatment
  • Often fatal without treatment!
  • Usually a lifelong condition requiring continuous treatment and dietary adjustments

In bullows (bullous) pemphigoid, antibodies attack the hemidesmosomes located below the epidermis.


Variant forms of bullous pemphigoid

Gestational pemphigoid [11]

Variant forms of pemphigus vulgaris

Pemphigus foliaceus [12][13][14]

Other variants and subtypes

Epidermolysis bullosa acquisita (EBA) [15][16]

Mucous membrane pemphigoid (MMP) [17]


In addition to evaluating clinical appearance, specific tests are performed to confirm the diagnosis of a blistering disease. For specific diagnostic findings, see differential diagnosis of autoimmune blistering diseases.


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