oPatientPlus 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.
Synonyms: factitious dermatitis, factitial dermatitis
Dermatitis artefacta is an intentional self-inflicted dermatitis that is difficult to diagnose and treat effectively. There may be an unconscious compulsion based on psychological or emotional need to elicit care and some view it as an extreme form of nonverbal communication. The patient will normally deny the aetiology and so the definition does not really include self-mutilation, such as multiple superficial cuts to the skin. It does not cover lesions made by others, such as cigarette burns (as may occur in child abuse). Lesions may be produced by a variety of mechanical or chemical means, including fingernails, sharp or blunt objects, burning cigarettes and caustic chemicals.
There are some circumstances in which the application of the diagnosis may be debated:
- In neurotic excoriation what seemed at first to be normal skin is scratched. It is inappropriate to refer to imaginary itch, as itch like pain is a subjective sensation. The excoriation sets up a reaction in the skin that makes it itch more and a vicious circle is produced. Itching may be produced in a healthy skin by neurological disease.
- Similarly, trichotillomania is usually a neurotic habit where individuals deep in concentration, wrap their hair around a finger and pull it tight causing hair loss.
- Formication means a sensation like ants running on the skin and causes sufferers to itch and claw at their skin. It can occur with alcohol and amfetamine abuse and some forms of psychosis. Delusional parasitosis may also occur.
- The condition is fairly rare, diagnosis is frequently uncertain and many times not even entertained. Dermatitis artefacta is thought to account for between 1 in 200 to 1 in 2,000 dermatological consultations.
- There is generally considered to be a female preponderance but estimates vary from just over 50% to 90% and more.
- Presentation typically appears to be in the 20-30 age range, although there is wide variation, with some describing a late adolescence to early adulthood peak. It is also reported in children.
- It is reasonable to assume that this condition represents a psychological abnormality although the patient may not be known to have a psychiatric illness. Coexisting psychiatric disorders are wide-ranging and include anxiety, depression, personality disorders, psychotic illness and dissociative disorders.
- Stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be involved.
- There is a strong association with eating disorders - the condition occurring in approximately a third of patients with anorexia or bulimia.
- Onset or relapse of dermatitis artefacta is often precipitated by definable psychosocial stressors, varying according to age and life situations.
- Many patients also have an associated chronic medical or dermatological condition.
A detailed history should be elicited; however, it may feel 'hollow', contradictory and elusive in nature:
- The skin lesion is usually described as appearing overnight with no evolution of signs or symptoms. However, patients may also reveal a 'special' ability to predict when and where a new lesion will appear, preceded by subjective symptoms of heat, burning, or other abnormal sensations.
- If challenged, the patient will usually deny that the rash is self-induced or change their story if confronted with inconsistencies.
- Enquire regarding past medical history (eg chronic medical conditions, chronic pain syndromes), psychiatric history and substance abuse.
- Is there a past history of child or sexual abuse or trauma?
- Are there any significant psychosocial stressors?
- What is the impact of the condition on the patient's quality of life and what is their perception of the skin condition? How do family members react?
- Occupational history: has the patient or a close contact worked in the healthcare system?
- Check collateral histories where available.
- Are medical records extensive, indicating numerous contacts, hospitalisations and procedures?
- Lesions can be enormously variable in character, depending upon how they are produced but often what is presented is quite florid. The doctor may be quite shocked whilst the patient is remarkably unperturbed with 'la belle indifference' (or 'Mona Lisa' smile of innocence) that is typical of hysterical illness.
- The range of lesions includes red patches, swelling, blisters, denuded areas, crusts, cuts, burns, and scars and there may be more than one type of lesion.
- They are often in bizarre shapes with irregular outlines in a linear or geometric pattern.
- There is usually clear demarcation with normal skin around the lesions.
- They are usually found on sites that are readily accessible to the patient's hands, such as face, hands, arms or legs but not in inaccessible areas such as between the scapulae. They may predominate on the patient's nondominant side.
There is no investigation that is specific for the disease. Swabs may be taken if secondary infection is suspected. If applicable, tests may be used to exclude other diseases such as skin biopsy. There is almost certainly some psychiatric pathology that will merit investigation at some stage.
They may resemble many other lesions but the classical features of dermatitis artefacta include:
- Clearly circumscribed lesions with normal intervening skin.
- A geometrical or other pattern that is rarely seen in organic disease.
- Lesions are confined to areas of easy access by the patient.
Linear lesions may follow trauma due to Köbner's phenomenon which usually affects psoriasis, lichen planus and occasionally erythema multiforme. Dermatitis artefacta can mimic a multitude of different skin disorders including basal cell carcinoma, pyoderma gangrenosum, and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
An important differential diagnosis is malingering in which the patient is consciously aware of producing factitious lesions, the purpose being to avoid work or claim compensation.
- Early consideration of the diagnosis is important to avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful investigations and treatments.
- Management is usually shared between dermatologists and psychiatry - although psychiatric referral is often refused.
- Many advocate avoiding direct confrontation when the disease is suspected although a gentle probe such as, 'Do you have any idea what might have caused this?' can be appropriate. Instead the doctor should create an accepting, empathetic and nonjudgemental environment. The management is rather akin to Münchhausen's syndrome and other factitious disorders. Close supervision and symptomatic care of skin lesions will hopefully lead to a doctor-patient relationship in which psychological issues may gradually be introduced. Regularly review suicide and self-harm risk.
- Palliative dermatological measures such as occlusive bandages, ointments or placebo drugs, as well as admission to hospital that includes bathing and massaging by nurses, can have a therapeutic impact on the psychiatric problem by symbolizing the medical attention and care for which the dermatitis artefacta patient is craving. Improvement of lesions under protective dressings is supportive of the diagnosis.
- Antidepressants may be of value. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often preferred although the tricyclic antidepressants may have some antipruritic effect and sedation can be beneficial. If the patient is motivated, cognitive and behavioural therapy (CBT) may be helpful as part of a package of care, although evidence is currently lacking. Atypical antipsychotics such as olanzapine may also be helpful. Inevitably, patients with different psychiatric illnesses require different approaches.
- Disfiguring scars on highly visible parts of the body, often the face.
- Psychiatric comorbidity, increasing risk of suicide.
- Iatrogenic side-effects from investigation and treatment.
Resolution of the current underlying psychological problem or stressors facilitates a cure for the time at least but dermatitis artefacta tends to be a chronic condition that waxes and wanes with events in the patient's life. Ongoing, intermittent review is often recommended but many patients are often lost to follow up.
The stigmata are regarded as an historical fact and part of doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church. The stigmata are the physical signs of the Passion of Christ that have been borne by many ecstatics over the centuries. One academic has counted 321 stigmatics 'in whom there is every reason to believe in a Divine action'. Of this 321, there were 280 women and 41 men. An alternative medical or psychiatric interpretation is as dermatitis artefacta. The 5 features represent:
- Flagellation of the back.
- The crown of thorns.
- Signs of nails from crucifixion on the hands and feet (hands and feet represent 2 separate signs).
- The mark of the soldier's spear in the side.
The stigmata were not recorded before the 13th century and the first recorded person to bear them was St Francis of Assisi (1186-1126) who is better known for his association with animals. With many stigmatics, these apparitions were cyclical. For example, St. Catherine de' Ricci, whose ecstasies of the Passion began when she was 20 years old in 1542, had recurrences at regular intervals for 12 years. They lasted exactly 28 hours, from Thursday noon until Friday afternoon at 4 pm, the only interruption being for her to receive Holy Communion. On coming out of the ecstasy her limbs were covered with wounds produced by whips, cords, etc.
Further reading & references
- Factitial Dermatitis, DermIS (Dermatology Information System)
- Dermatis artefacta, DermNet NZ
- Mystical stigmata, Catholic encylclopaedia
- Fabisch W; Psychiatric aspects of dermatitis artefacta. Br J Dermatol. 1980 Jan;102(1):29-34.
- Zalewska A, Kondras K, Narbutt J, et al; Dermatitis artefacta in a patient with paranoid syndrome. Acta Dermatovenerol Alp Panonica Adriat. 2007 Mar;16(1):37-9.
- Verraes-Derancourt S, Derancourt C, Poot F, et al; Dermatitis artefacta: retrospective study in 31 patients. Ann Dermatol Venereol. 2006 Mar;133(3):235-8.
- Koo JYM; Dermatitis Artefacta, eMedicine, Jul 2009
- Shah KN, Fried RG; Factitial dermatoses in children. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2006 Aug;18(4):403-9.
- Gupta MA, Lanius RA, Van der Kolk BA; Psychologic trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and dermatology. Dermatol Clin. 2005 Oct;23(4):649-56.
- Gattu S, Rashid RM, Khachemoune A; Self-induced skin lesions: a review of dermatitis artefacta. Cutis. 2009 Nov;84(5):247-51.
- Joe EK, Li VW, Magro CM, et al; Diagnostic clues to dermatitis artefacta. Cutis. 1999 Apr;63(4):209-14.
- Murray AT, Goble R, Sutton GA; Dermatitis artefacta presenting as a basal cell carcinoma--an important clinical sign missed. Br J Ophthalmol. 1998 Jan;82(1):97.
- Harries MJ, McMullen E, Griffiths CE; Pyoderma gangrenosum masquerading as dermatitis artefacta. Arch Dermatol. 2006 Nov;142(11):1509-10.
- Angus J, Affleck AG, Croft JC, et al; Dermatitis artefacta in a 12-year-old girl mimicking cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. Pediatr Dermatol. 2007 May-Jun;24(3):327-9.
- Cohen AD, Vardy DA; Dermatitis artefacta in soldiers. Mil Med. 2006 Jun;171(6):497-9.
- Koblenzer CS; Dermatitis artefacta. Clinical features and approaches to treatment. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000 Jan-Feb;1(1):47-55.
- Gupta MA, Guptat AK; The use of antidepressant drugs in dermatology. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2001 Nov;15(6):512-8.
- Garnis-Jones S, Collins S, Rosenthal D; Treatment of self-mutilation with olanzapine. J Cutan Med Surg. 2000 Jul;4(3):161-3.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Chloe Borton
Dr Chloe Borton