Acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis L27.0

Author: Prof. Dr. med. Peter Altmeyer

All authors of this article

Last updated on: 07.12.2023

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Acute generalized exanthematic pustular dermatitis; Acute generalized exanthematic pustulosis; Acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis; Acute generalized pustular bacterium; Acute generalized pustulosis; AGEP; Dermatitis acute generalized exanthematic pustular; PEAG; Pustular drug rush; pustulodermic toxin; Pustuloses exanthématique aiguës généralisés; Toxic Pustuloderm

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MacMillian, 1973; Tan, 1974; Beylot, 1980

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Acute, generalized, often febrile, non-follicular, sterile, pustular exanthema occurring in connection with infections and/or medication, always accompanied by marked systemic leukocytosis and neutrophilia, with a strong tendency to heal spontaneously.

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The incidences are given as 0.1-0.5/100,000 inhabitants/year.

Women seem to be affected slightly more often than men.

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Occurs in > 90% of cases after taking medication. Triggers described include:

  • Frequently:
    • Antibiotics:
      • β-lactams and β-lactamase inhibitors: oxacillin, dicloxacillin, amoxicillin ± clavulanic acid, piperacillin-tazobactam and faropenem.
      • Cephalosporins: cefixime, ceftriaxone, cefepime and cefotaxime.

      • Macrolides: Azithromycin

      • Fluoroquinolones: ciprofloxacin and tosufloxacin

        Antibiotics of different classes: clindamycin, tigecycline, telavancin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, vancomycin, daptomycin, metronidazole and pristinamycin.

      • Antimalarials: Hydroxychloroquine is the second most frequently reported drug after antibiotics overall, with 44 cases reported in a recent review (Catho G et al. 2013). There have been increased reports of hydroxychloroquine-induced AGEP, particularly in the era of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic from 2020 to date, which may be due to the increased use of the drug. It is noteworthy that the onset of hydroxychloroquine-induced AGEP is usually delayed compared to other drugs due to the long half-life of 40-50 days. Other antimalarials: atovaquone/proguanil
      • Antifungals such as terbinafine, fluconazole, miconazole gel and nystatin
      • Antivirals: acyclovir, favipiravir, remdesivir and ritonavir
      • Calcium channel blockers (diltiazem)
  • Less frequently:
    • Allopurinol
    • carbamazepine
    • Glucocorticoids
    • ibuprofen
    • metamizole
    • Oxicame
    • Pseudeoephedrine (in flu remedies)
    • Paracetamol
    • Chemotherapeutic agents: bendamustine, docetaxel, doxorubicin, gemcitabine, mycophenolate mofetil and paclitaxel
    • Biological tumor therapeutics: cetuximab, erlotinib, rituximab, sorafenib and vismodegib

    • Immunotherapeutics: pembrolizumab, ipilimumab, nivolumab, atezolizumab and IL-2.

    • An association with HLA-B5, -DR11 and -DQ3 is observed.

Generalized subcorneal pustulosis can also be a partial symptom of genetic inflammatory systemic diseases (see below DIRA - mutation in the IL1RN gene).

Infections: Several infections have been reported in association with the occurrence of AGEP. There are reports of AGEP after Chlamydia pneumoniae, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, coccidiomycosis, COVID-19, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and parvovirus B19. It is conceivable that patients with an underlying infectious disease are more susceptible to developing AGEP. It is also conceivable that patients with an underlying infectious disease may develop AGEP as a consequence of pharmacologic treatment to treat the infection.

Vaccinations: There are reports of AGEP following influenza vaccination and Spikevax COVID-19 vaccination (Moderna) (Hayashi E et al. 2021; Agaronov A et al. 2021; Mitri F et al. 2021). The pathogenesis could also be due to the "cytokine storm-like" global immune activation that can occur after COVID-19 infection or vaccination. Given the high frequency of influenza vaccination and mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (Moderna) at international level, it can be stated that the epidemiological risk of contracting AGEP remains very low. However, there is no proven causality between vaccination and AGEP.

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Several immunological pathways are involved in the pathogenesis of AGEP. They all lead to an increased secretion of interleukin (IL)-8 and the subsequent migration and survival of neutrophil granulocytes.

In principle, it can be assumed that AGEP is based on a T-cell-mediated delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction to a specific drug or other trigger. After exposure to the triggering agent, antigen-presenting cells(APCs) present the antigen on their surface using molecules of the major histocompatibility complex. This leads to the activation of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells, which react in a drug-specific manner.

Furthermore, the activated T cells proliferate. They migrate into the dermis and epidermis. The drug-specific CD8+ T cells induce apoptosis of keratinocytes via perforin/granzymeB and Fas ligands. Histologically, this can be seen in the formation of epidermal vesicles (Baker H et al. 1968). In addition, activated T cells secrete IL-8, which is a chemoattractant for neutrophil granulocytes. The result is epidermal pustulation and the parallel accompanying peripheral neutrophilia (Sidoroff A et al. 2007).

In AGEP, T helper (Th) 1 cells predominate. This leads to increased secretion of interferon (IFN)-γ and granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor, which in turn promotes neutrophil survival. Th2 cells, which produce IL-5, may also play a role. This is particularly true in patients with eosinophilia . IL-5 is a strong eosinophil stimulator. Th17 lymphocytes also appear to play a role in the pathogenesis of AGEP, as the cytokines IL-17 and IL-22 produced by these cells synergistically promote downstream IL-8 secretion(Sidoroff A et al. (2007).

Mutations in the IL36RN gene, which codes for the IL-36 receptor antagonist, are more common in patients diagnosed with both AGEP and pustular psoriasis than in unaffected individuals (Sidoroff A et al. 2007; Meier-Schiesser B et al. 2019; Navarini AA et al. 2013; Song HS et al. 2016; Sugiura K 2014). IL-36 is a proinflammatory cytokine secreted by macrophages and keratinocytes. IL-36 receptors are identified in high concentrations on the surface of APCs in the skin during AGEP.

Typically, the IL-36 receptor antagonist blocks the signaling of inflammatory cytokines such as IL-36α, IL-36β and IL-36γ (Song HS et al. 2016). The gene encoding this receptor antagonist(IL36RN gene) is a small gene with six exons located on chromosome 2 at position q14. Dysregulation of this pathway (e.g. by the mutations detected in this gene) leads to increased IL-36 signaling and thus to increased production of the downstream cytokines IL-6, IL-8, IL-1α and IL-1β. It can be assumed that the increase in these signal transmissions predisposes to pustular eruptions (Baker H et al. 1968). It has been shown that amoxicillin and letrozole can specifically trigger the production of IL-36γ cytokines by sensitized CD14+ macrophages from peripheral blood via Toll-like receptor 4 and by keratinocytes in patients, respectively.

Of note are reports of overlap between AGEP and generalized pustular psoriasis (GPP) . For example, one such constellation was reported in response to ceftriaxone, in which a patient with psoriasis vulgaris developed pustular exanthema after taking the antibiotic. However, it was not clear whether this was a case of AGEP in a patient with a history of psoriasis or an acute exacerbation of pustular psoriasis (Isom J et al. 2020; Vyas NS et al. 2019).

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A special age disposition does not exist. Children are less frequently affected than adults.

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Typical is the infestation of the large flexures (axillary, submammary, inguinal region); but generalized infestation is also possible. AGEP can be accompanied by oedema of the facial skin.

Clinical features
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Onset of the disease with marked impairment of the general condition; often febrile course with temperatures > 38°C.

Typical is the onset in the face and the large flexures of the joints with disseminated, synchronously developing erythema or red swellings on which multiple, narrow, non-follicular pustules of about 0.1 cm in size form. These coalesce into large-area lakes of pus, with the delicate pustular covering sloughing off its lower surface (Nikolski phenomenon) and lying like a crumpled moist cloth. The pustular exanthema is accompanied by itching or even stabbing or burning pain (needle-like).

Sometimes erythema exsudativum multiforme-like cocard patterns may develop, in which the pustules are usually arranged rimward, either disseminated but also grouped. The pustules persist for a few days; their healing is accompanied by a ragged, raised scaling of thin horny films (see Fig.).

Involvement of mucous membranes close to the skin (oral mucosa, genitalia) is rather rare; when present, exfoliative enanthema is more likely to be clinically mild.

Systemic involvement: Systemic involvement is any organ dysfunction that occurs along with the cutaneous symptoms and cannot be attributed to another cause or disease. Studies have shown that 17-20% of AGEP cases have internal organ involvement, most commonly liver, kidney, or lung disease.

Liver: Liver findings are elevated enzyme levels that are either hepatocellular (elevated aspartate aminotransferase and alanine aminotransferase up to twice normal) or cholestatic (elevated alkaline phosphatase and γ-glutamyltransferase). Ultrasonography of the abdomen may show steatosis or hepatomegaly, both of which are nonspecific.

Kidneys: Ren al findings may include a creatinine >1.5 times baseline, indicating severe acute renal injury.

Lungs: Pulmonary findings may include pleural effusions, hypoxemia, and increased oxygen demand.

Systemic symptoms usually resolve with discontinuation of the causative drug, treatment of the underlying disease, and supportive care. AGEP cases that present with systemic symptoms are usually associated with higher morbidity and mortality than AGEP cases with only cutaneous features.

Notice. Coarse lamellar corneolytic desquamation is diagnostically suggestive of subcorneal pustulation!

In an atypical course, clinically evident pustular formation may be absent in this clinical picture. In this case, it is only visible in the histological preparation; however, even in these cases, a lesional corneolytic scaly ruff is found on healing.

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The literature reports positive patch test results in AGEP. Ninety-three drugs were identified in a larger study, which together caused 259 positive patch tests in 248 patients with AGEP. The following drug classes showed the most frequent reactions (de Groot AC 2022):

Beta-lactam antibiotics (25.9%)

other antibiotics (20.8 %)

contrast media containing iodine (7.3 %)

corticosteroids (5.4 %)

Together, these drugs account for almost 60% of all reactions

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ESR elevation, CRP elevation, always marked leukocytosis (leukocytes > 10,000-12,000/mm³; sine qua non), marked neutrophilia, usually mild to marked relative lymphopenia, possibly eosinophilia. Not obligatory are elevations of transaminases and alk. phosphatase.

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Exocytosis with intraepidermal, immediate subcorneal accumulations of neutrophil granulocytes.

Formation of spongiform to unicompartmental (nonfollicular)pustules.

Focal loss of str. granulosum. Mostly orthokeratotic epithelium. Occasionally, admixtures of eosinophilic granulocytes and erythrocyte extravasations are also present.

Pattern: Superficial perivascular and diffuse neutrophilic dermatitis with subcorneal pustule formation.

In contrast to TEN (subepidermal cleft formation with necrotic epidermis), biopsy in pustulosis acuta generalisata shows subcorneal pustules.

Direct Immunofluorescence
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Immunohistology: Immunoglobulins (IgG) and complement factors (C3) in the vessel walls of the capillaries of the stratum papillare and in the basement membrane zone

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The "AGEP validation score" of the EuroSCAR study group (Sidoroff et al. 2001) is helpful for validating the diagnosis. A score of 8-12 points speaks for the diagnosis:

AGEP validation score of EuroSCAR study group (Sidoroff A et al. 2001)

Symptom Score

  • Pustule
    • Typical +2
    • Compatible +1
    • Not compatible 0
  • Erythema
    • Typical +2
    • Compatible +1
    • Non-compatible 0
  • Distribution pattern
    • Typical +2
    • Compatible +1
    • Non-compatible 0
  • Postpustular desquamation
    • Typical +1
    • Non-compatible 0
  • Mucosal infestation
    • Yes +1
    • No 0
  • Acute course (<10 days)
    • Yes +1
    • No 0
  • Healing (<15 days)
    • Yes +1
    • No 0
  • Fever
    • Yes +1
    • No 0
  • Neutrophilic leukocytosis (>7,000)
    • Yes +1
    • No 0

Differential diagnosis
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  • Clinical differential diagnoses:
  • Histological differential diagnoses:
    • Psoriasis pustulosa generalisata (no reliable histological differentiation; medical history)
    • Pustular tinea (subcorneal pustular formation possible; detection of hyphae in the PAS preparation; in the upper dermis dense diffuse, sometimes perivasally accentuated lymphocytic infiltrate with few neutrophils and eosinophil granulocytes)
    • Impetigo contagiosa (subcorneal pustule; detection of bacteria)
    • Impetiginized eczema (eczema picture with broad-based acanthosis and extensive parakeratosis, broad spongiosis; focal penetration of the epithelium with neutrophil granulocytes).

General therapy
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Stopping the triggering medication.

External therapy
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Drying measures with Lotio alba, in case of superinfection possibly addition of 3-5% Clioquinol R050, baths with addition of potassium permanganate (light pink), Betaisodona wound gauze or antibiotic treatment with e.g. Clioquinol cream(Linola-Sept). If necessary, storage on Metalline foil. In case of a pronounced inflammatory note, topical glucocorticoids such as betamethasone valerate (e.g. Betnesol V, R030, R029 ) or triamcinolone acetonide (Triamgalen, R259 ) may be necessary.

Internal therapy
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Healing is usually described 10-14 days after discontinuation of the triggering drug. Until then symptomatic therapy, e.g. with dimetindene or other H1-blockers.

Important: control of protein and electrolyte balance.

Internal steroid medication can be initiated in the eruption phase of the disease: Initially 250-150 mg prednisolone/day i.v.; reduce by 50 mg daily depending on the acuity, oralize from 50 mg and reduce in 5 mg steps.

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Spontaneous healing after 10-28 days

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The disease also heals spontaneously after discontinuation of the triggering drugs. The extent to which glucocorticoid therapy is useful currently remains open.

In individual cases, a positive epicutaneous test against causative drugs can be obtained after the clinical manifestations have subsided (the non-irritative concentration of the drug in epicutaneous drug testing varies).

Case report(s)
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The 63-year-old, always skin-healthy patient had been suffering for 4 days from a trunk and limb seizing exanthema accompanied by malaise, loss of appetite and moderate fever (38.5 °C). This was preceded by a 2-week oral administration of Terbinafine due to Tinea unguium.
  • Findings: Patients in clearly reduced, feverish (38.7 °C) AZ. On the trunk and extremities in diffuse distribution dense exanthema of 0.2-0.5 cm large, red, partly isolated papules and plaques, partly confluent to larger areas. Particularly on the confluent plaques, isolated pustules of barely 0.1 cm in size, which in places have confluated to form larger pus puddles, can hardly be seen. Oral mucosa o.B. No hepatosplenomegaly, no lymph node swelling.
  • Histology: Intraepidermal, superficial, spongiform to single chambered pustules. Laboratory: CRP 65 mg/l; leucocytosis (16.400/µl), neutrophilia (87%), lymphopenia (1.200/ul), GGT(54 U/l).
  • Therapy: Systemic glucocorticoids (prednisolone 250 mg/day i.v. with dose reduction of 50 mg in decreasing doses. Additional sedative antihistamine ( Dimetinden 2 times/day 4 mg i.v.). Local therapy with thin application of Lotio alba or Lotio alba aquosa skin-coloured (NRF 11.22.).
  • Course: After 2 days of defibrillation, after 4 days of paling of the lesions, coarse lamellar desquamation first on the trunk and significantly later on the lower extremity. After 7 days CRP 35 mg/l, leucocytosis at 11,400 µ/l. After 14 days extensive restitutio. The patient was allowed to take lukewarm showers in each phase of the disease.

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  1. Beylot C et al. (1980) Acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis. Semin Cutan Med Surg 15: 244-249
  2. de Groot AC (2022). Results of patch testing in acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis (AGEP): A literature review. Contact Dermatitis 87:119-141.
  3. Langner D et al. (2011) Systemic therapy with infliximab in severe pustular generalized psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Act Dermatol 35: 185-186
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Last updated on: 07.12.2023