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Erythema multiforme in Adult
See also in: Anogenital,Oral Mucosal Lesion
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed

Erythema multiforme in Adult

See also in: Anogenital,Oral Mucosal Lesion
Contributors: Erin X. Wei MD, Jeffrey M. Cohen MD, Belinda Tan MD, PhD, Susan Burgin MD
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed


Erythema multiforme (EM) is a self-limited hypersensitivity reaction of the skin and mucous membranes characterized by the acute onset of fixed lesions of concentric color change (target lesions). Two subtypes exist: EM major and EM minor. Key differences between the EM subtypes include mucosal involvement and systemic symptoms such as fever, arthralgias, and asthenias seen in the major subtype. Prodromal symptoms occasionally can be associated.

Recurrent EM occurs in a subset of patients and has been variably defined as more than 1, more than 2, or more than 6 flares per year.

Persistent EM is uncommon and refers to chronic, continuous presence of EM or outbreaks separated by 15 days or less.

In adults, the primary trigger for EM is herpes simplex virus (HSV), which is estimated to incite about 90% of cases. EM has been reported with other infections including histoplasmosis, Epstein-Barr virus, and, most recently, COVID-19. Medication can also be a trigger. Idiopathic cases have also been seen.

Typically, all cutaneous lesions appear within 24-72 hours and persist for 1-4 weeks before fading. The eruption recurs on repeated exposure to the inciting agent.

The following points should be kept in mind when a diagnosis of EM is being considered:
  • Herpes labialis may typically precede development of EM but may sometimes develop concomitantly or manifest after the onset of EM. (In almost half of all cases, herpes labialis precedes EM.)
  • Although a strong association exists with HSV and EM, a direct immunofluorescence test or viral culture for HSV will be negative in EM lesions.
  • Classical target lesions are well-defined circular lesions that are less than 3 cm in diameter and have 3 distinct color zones and a central zone that has a bulla or crust.
  • Atypical target lesions are palpable, poorly defined, circular lesions that have 2 distinct color zones. Raised atypical targets are a subtype of atypical targets that have a vesicle or bulla centrally.
  • EM can demonstrate classical target lesions, raised atypical target lesions, or both concomitantly.
  • EM is not considered within the same disease spectrum as Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) / toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) and confers no risk of progressing to TEN.
  • EM major refers to the presence of significant mucosal involvement in a case of EM, whereas in EM minor, mucosal involvement is absent or minimal.
The presence of erythema multiforme-like lesions in a patient with lupus, along with a speckled pattern of antinuclear antibody (ANA), positive anti-Ro/SSA or anti-La/SSB, and positive rheumatoid factor (RF) is known as Rowell syndrome. This syndrome has been described in patients with discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE), subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE), and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Its existence as a distinct entity has been debated in the literature; some authors believe the association is coincidental. Prednisone with or without hydroxychloroquine, dapsone, or immunosuppressive drugs such as cyclosporin have been cited as therapy.


L51.9 – Erythema multiforme, unspecified

36715001 – Erythema multiforme

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Last Reviewed:12/19/2022
Last Updated:04/03/2023
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Erythema multiforme in Adult
See also in: Anogenital,Oral Mucosal Lesion
A medical illustration showing key findings of Erythema multiforme (Skin) : Scattered many
Clinical image of Erythema multiforme - imageId=30005. Click to open in gallery.  caption: 'Edematous and erythematous papules and plaques, some with a target-like appearance on the leg.'
Edematous and erythematous papules and plaques, some with a target-like appearance on the leg.
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