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Erythema multiforme

​​​​​​​Erythema multiforme​ is a skin condition that causes red and raised areas.

It's exact cause is not well understood, but it is believed to be associated with certain medicines or viruses.

Erythema means a redness of the skin and multiforme means it may appear in more than one form.

The minor form of erythema multiforme is minor and treatable. The major form is a serious medical condition that needs immediate attention.

The Dermatologists at Marshfield Clinic diagnose and treat all conditions and diseases of the skin.​

What is erythema multiforme?

Erythema multiforme is a skin disorder that's considered to be an allergic reaction to medicine or an infection.

Symptoms are symmetrical, red, raised skin areas that can appear all over the body. They do seem to be more noticeable on the fingers and toes. 

These patches often look like "targets" (dark circles with purple-grey centers). The skin condition may happen over and over again, and usually lasts for 2 to 4 weeks each time.

Most often, this disorder is caused by the herpes simplex virus. It has also been associated with Mycoplasma pnemoniae as well as fungal infections. Other causes may include the following:

  • An interaction with a certain medicine

  • Other infectious diseases

  • Certain vaccines

What are the symptoms of erythema multiforme?

The following are the most common symptoms of erythema multiforme:

  • Sudden, red patches and blisters, usually on the palms of hands, soles of feet, and face

  • Flat, round red "targets" (dark circles with purple-grey centers)

  • Itching

  • Cold sores

  • Fatigue

  • Joint pains

  • Fever

The symptoms of erythema multiforme may resemble other skin conditions. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Treatment for erythema multiforme

Specific treatment for erythema multiforme will be discussed with you by your healthcare provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Severity of the condition

  • Stage of the condition

  • Your tolerance of specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Erythema multiforme minor is not very serious and usually clears up with medicine to control infection or inflammation.

However, if a person develops a more severe form of erythema multiforme (erythema multiforme major), the condition can become fatal. 

Erythema multiforme major is also known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome. It is usually caused by a medicine reaction rather than an infection.

Treatment may include:

  • Hospitalization

  • Intravenous fluids

  • Treating the infectious disease causing the disorder

  • Eliminating any medicine causing the disorder

  • Cool compresses

  • Corticosteroids

  • Antibiotics

It is recommended that if you have symptoms of erythema multiforme, go to your emergency room or call 911. If a large area of skin is involved, it is an emergency situation. 

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If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

Call: 1-866-520-2510

(Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.)

Take the Psoriasis Quiz

Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease that affects millions of Americans. It can affect people of any age, but it occurs mostly in young adults. It can also show up in people in their 50s. Find out more about this disease by taking this quiz, based on information from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases, the American Academy of Dermatology, and the National Psoriasis Foundation.

1. What happens to skin cells in a person with psoriasis?
2. Which body part is most often affected by psoriasis?
3. What is a health problem that also may occur with psoriasis?
4. Psoriasis falls into which category of disease?
5. What can make psoriasis worse?
6. Itching is a common symptom of psoriasis (and other skin disorders). Which of these suggestions can help relieve the itching?
7. Psoriasis can interfere with quality of life. In what way?
8. How is psoriasis treated?