• Clinical science

Stevens-Johnson syndrome


Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) is a rare, immune-mediated, skin reaction that results in blistering of skin and extensive epidermal detachment. SJS is generally triggered by medications (e.g., certain antibiotics and antiepileptics). The patient presents 1–3 weeks after exposure to a medication with fever and other flu-like symptoms. Painful, vesiculobullous skin lesions develop and eventually denude to form extensive skin erosions, resembling large, superficial burns. The mucous membranes are also characteristically affected and the patient presents with oral ulcers, genital ulcers, and/or severe conjunctivitis. When > 30% of the skin is affected, the condition is referred to as toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN). SJS and TEN are associated with a high mortality as a result of hypovolemic and/or septic shock. The diagnosis is primarily clinical, but skin biopsies can be used to support the diagnosis and rule out other causes of vesiculobullous lesions. The most important therapeutic measure is to discontinue the offending drug. Supportive care (e.g., fluid resuscitation, antibiotics) may be required to treat shock.


  • A rare, immune-mediated skin reaction that leads to extensive epidermal detachment and is associated with a high mortality.
  • SJS and TEN (toxic epidermal necrolysis) are the same entity but differ in terms of disease severity (based on surface area of skin involved).



  • Annual incidence: ∼ 5 cases per 1,000,000 individuals
  • Age of onset: any age
  • Sex: > (5:3)


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.





Clinical features

  • Prodromal phase (begins 1–3 weeks after the intake of medication): high fever (usually > 39°C or 102°F), malaise, sore throat, myalgia and/or arthralgia
  • Mucocutaneous lesions appear 1–3 days after the onset of prodromal symptoms
    • Cutaneous manifestation sequence
      1. Painful, erythematous/purpuric macules
        • May have a targetoid appearance (cockade lesions)
        • Typically seen over the face and trunk
      2. Lesions form bullae and/or vesicles; positive Nikolsky's sign
      3. Extensive, full-thickness epidermal necrosis and sloughing (resembling large superficial burns)
      4. Healing by re-epithelialization: begins 1–2 weeks after epidermal sloughing and is completed within a few weeks
    • Mucosal membranes: almost always involved.
  • Shock may develop

The involvement of mucous membranes differentiates SJS from staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS) in which mucous membranes are spared!



SJS is primarily a clinical diagnosis (based on history of medications and infections, especially HIV) that is supported by skin tests and laboratory findings


Differential diagnoses


The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


No definitive therapy exists. Early discontinuation of the drug and adequate supportive care are associated with better outcomes!




We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.


  • Case fatality rate
    • SJS: ∼ 10%
    • SJS/TEN overlap: ∼ 30%
    • TEN: ∼ 50%
  • Factors associated with a poor prognosis
    • Old age (> 70 years)
    • Intestinal involvement
    • Pulmonary involvement
  • SJS and/or TEN may recur with the use of the same or closely related offending drug.