What is Erythema Multiforme?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2018
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Erythema multiforme is a condition that affects the skin and creates a rash, which is usually profound and present on most of the body. It has a number of causes and is considered to be related to the more serious condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS). SJS may be called erythema multiforme major, to distinguish it from the milder form.

There are many potential causes of this skin condition. It has been shown to sometimes be associated with herpes infections (oral or genital). Some people may develop the rash with each outbreak, or upon onset of first expression of herpes simplex virus. Alternately, other viruses or reactions to medications can result in this skin reaction.

Symptoms may vary with each person who gets this erythema multiforme. Typically, people might have raised pinpoint spots, especially on the palms and feet, but also on the rest of the body. These can be located close together and form a whole area of raised skin. Sometimes the skin blisters and crusts over, and the skin may itch or feel hot.


In terms of symptom expression, one of the main differences between erythema multiforme and SJS is if rash exists on the mucus membranes. If rash extends onto the eyes, into the nose, or if lesions are present in the mouth or in genitals, it is more likely to be the severe form and is very serious. A doctor should evaluate evidence of anything that looks like erythema multiforme immediately, given the seriousness that it may represent.

However, with the milder form of this rash, the condition typically clears on its own in a few weeks. Sometimes people take antihistamines to help with itching, or doctors may prescribe medications like prednisone to accelerate skin healing. Depending on the cause identified by doctors, a patient might need to discontinue a medication that is likely the root of the problem.

When erythema multiforme results from herpes infections and tends to recur, using antiviral medications may be of use. Antibiotics might be used if any secondary infection of the skin occurs, but it is also perfectly normal not to have any treatment for this condition, since it can resolve on its own. Folks should also be aware that the rash, though potentially itchy and possibly widespread is not contagious.

Another rash that looks similar to erythema multiforme is hives or urticaria. The main difference in these two rashes is that hives usually clears up within twenty-four hours of first expression. It also doesn’t tend to form any types of watery blisters or crust over.



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