Diagnosis of Pemphigus

Early diagnosis is important, so if you have blisters on the skin or in the mouth that do not go away, it is important to see a doctor as soon as you can. Your doctor may try to rule out other conditions first, since pemphigus is a rare disease. Your doctor may:

  • Take your medical history, and give you a physical exam. A dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in conditions of the skin, hair, and nails) may ask you about your medical history and look at the appearance and location of blisters. He or she may run a finger or cotton swab over the surface of your skin to see if it shears off easily.
  • Take a tissue sample. Your doctor may take a sample from one of your blisters to:
    • Examine it under the microscope to look for cell separation and to determine the layer of skin in which the cells are separated.
    • Determine which antibodies attacked the skin.
  • Take a blood sample. Antibody levels in your blood can help determine the severity of the disease. This blood test may also be used later on to see if treatment is working.

Treatment of Pemphigus

There is no cure for pemphigus, but treatment can control the disease in most people. The initial goal of treatment is to clear existing blisters and help prevent relapses. Treatment typically depends on the severity and stage of the disease.

Symptoms of pemphigus may go away after many years of treatment, but most people need to continue taking medications to keep the disease under control. Treatment for pemphigus may involve the following medications:

  • Corticosteroids. These anti-inflammatory medicines are a mainstay of treatment for pemphigus. They may be applied topically as a cream or ointment, or by mouth or injection (systemically). Most people will be prescribed systemic corticosteroids, at least initially, to bring the disease under control. Because they are potent drugs, your doctor will prescribe the lowest dose possible to achieve the desired benefit. 
  • Immunosuppressants. These help suppress or curb the overactive immune system.
  • Biologic response modifiers. These target specific immune messages and interrupt the signal, helping to stop the immune system from attacking the skin.
  • Antibiotics, antivirals, and antifungal medications to control or prevent infections.

If the above treatments do not work or pemphigus is severe, other treatments may be considered. These treatments include:

  • Plasmapheresis or immunoadsorption, which remove damaging antibodies from the blood.
  • Intravenous immunoglobulin therapy, in which you are given pooled antibodies from 1,000 or more healthy blood donors.

Be sure to report any problems or side effects from medications to your doctor.

In some cases, a person with pemphigus may need to be hospitalized to treat health problems that the disease or its treatment can cause. Widespread sores on the skin can result in dehydration or infection, and painful blisters in the mouth can make it difficult to eat. In the hospital, you may be given an IV to replace lost fluids, to get much-needed nutrition, and to treat infection.

Who Treats Pemphigus?

The following health care providers may diagnose and treat pemphigus:

  • Dermatologists, who specialize in conditions of the skin, hair, and nails.
  • Dentists, who can tell you how to take care of your gums and teeth if you have blisters in your mouth.
  • Mental health professionals, who help people cope with difficulties in the home and workplace that may result from their medical conditions. 
  • Ophthalmologists, in cases where the eyes are affected. Ophthalmologists specialize in treating disorders and diseases of the eye. 
  • Primary care doctors, such as a family physician or internal medicine specialist, who coordinate care between the different health care providers and treat other problems as they arise.

Living With Pemphigus

Blisters in the mouth may make brushing and flossing your teeth painful, so talk to your dentist about ways to keep your teeth and gums healthy. Avoid foods that irritate your mouth blisters. Your dermatologist may recommend baths and wound dressings to help heal the sores and blisters.

Pemphigus and its treatments can be debilitating and cause lost time at work, weight loss, sleep problems, and emotional distress. A mental health professional or a support group may help you cope with the disease.

Remember to follow the recommendations of your health care providers.

View/Download/Order Publications