Clinical Review

Erythema Ab Igne: A Clinical Review

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Erythema ab igne (EAI) is a skin condition caused by chronic heat-induced damage. The rash usually progresses over weeks to months of repeated or prolonged exposure to subthreshold-intensity infrared radiation that is not hot enough to cause a burn. The diagnosis is clinical based on patient history and physical examination, but a biopsy can reveal dilated vasculature, interface dermatitis, and pigment incontinence. Erythema ab igne initially was described in association with patients cooking over wood-fire stoves but has been shown over the decades to have a variety of causes. Herein, we describe various etiologies of EAI, including new heat-producing technologies, cultural practices, psychiatric illnesses, and even iatrogenic causes. However, the cause most commonly is application of heat for treatment of chronic pain, which may be a diagnostic clue for an underlying chronic illness. Although there are no current US Food and Drug Administration–approved therapies for treatment of EAI hyperpigmentation, the prognosis is excellent because removal of the heat source often will result in spontaneous resolution over time. Finally, chronic EAI rarely has been reported to evolve into squamous cell carcinoma, poorly differentiated carcinoma, cutaneous marginal zone lymphoma, and even Merkel cell carcinoma.

Practice Points

  • Erythema ab igne (EAI) is a skin condition caused by chronic exposure to heat; removal of the heat source often will result in self-resolution of the rash.
  • Erythema ab igne can be a sign of underlying illness in patients self-treating chronic pain with application of heat.
  • Recognition and discontinuation of the exposure with close observation are key components in the treatment of EAI.



Erythema ab igne (EAI)(also known as toasted skin syndrome) was first described in the British Journal of Dermatology in the 20th century, 1 though it was known by physicians long before. Reticular netlike skin changes were seen in association with patients who spent extended time directly next to a heat source. This association led to the name of this condition, which literally means “redness by fire.” Indeed, EAI induced by chronic heat exposure has been described across the world for centuries. For example, in the cold regions of northern China, people used to sleep on beds of hot bricks called kang to stay warm at night. The people of India’s Kashmir district carried pots of hot coals called kangri next to the skin under large woven shawls to stay warm. In the past, Irish women often spent much time by a turf- or peat-burning fire. Chronic heat exposure in these cases can lead not only to EAI but also to aggressive types of cancer, often with a latency of 30 years or more. 2

More recently, the invention of home central heating led to a stark decrease in the number of cases associated with combustion-based heat, with a transition to etiologies such as use of hot water bottles, electric blankets, and electric space heaters. Over time, technological advances led to ever-increasing potential causes for EAI, such as laptops or cell phones, car heaters and heated seats, heated blankets,3,4 infrared lamps for food, and even medical devices such as ultrasound-based heating products and convective temperature management systems for hospitalized patients. As technology evolves, so do the potential causes of EAI, requiring clinicians to diagnose and deduce the cause through a thorough social and medical history as well as a workup on the present illness with considerations for the anatomical location.5-7 Herein, we describe the etiology of EAI, diagnosis, and treatment options.

Erythema ab igne secondary to use of a space heater nightly for 6 months.

FIGURE 1. Erythema ab igne secondary to use of a space heater nightly for 6 months.

Clinical Characteristics

Erythema ab igne begins as mild, transient, and erythematous macules and patches in a reticular pattern that resolve minutes to hours after removal of the heat source. With weeks to months of continued or repeated application of the heat source, the affected area eventually becomes hyperpigmented where there once was erythema (Figures 1 and 2). Sometimes papules, bullae, telangiectasia, and hyperkeratosis also form. The rash usually is asymptomatic, though pain, pruritus, and dysesthesia have been reported.7 Dermoscopy of EAI in the hyperpigmented stage can reveal diffuse superficial dark pigmentation, telangiectasia, and mild whitish scaling.8 Although the pathogenesis has remained elusive over the years, lesions do seem to be mostly associated with cumulative exposure to heat rather than length of exposure.7

Biopsy-proven erythema ab igne in a patient with darker skin.

FIGURE 2. Biopsy-proven erythema ab igne in a patient with darker skin.

Etiology of EAI

Anatomic Location—The affected site depends on the source of heat (Table). Classic examples of this condition include a patient with EAI presenting on the anterior thighs after working in front of a hot oven or a patient with chronic back pain presenting with lower-back EAI secondary to frequent use of a hot water bottle or heating pad.7 With evolving technology over the last few decades, new etiologies have become more common—teenagers are presenting with anterior thigh EAI secondary to frequent laptop use2-29; patients are holding warm cell phones in their pant pockets, leading to unilateral geometric EAI on the anterior thigh (front pocket) or buttock (back pocket)30; plug-in radiators under computer desks are causing EAI on the lower legs31-34; and automobile seat heaters have been shown to cause EAI on the posterior legs.5,35-37 Clinicians should consider anatomic location a critical clue for etiology.

Etiologic Considerations and Possible Comorbidities Based on Anatomic Location of Erythema Ab Igne

Social History—There are rarer and more highly specific causes of EAI than simple heat exposure that can be parsed from a patient’s social history. Occupational exposure has been documented, such as bakers with exposure to ovens, foundry workers with exposure to heated metals, or fast-food workers with chronic exposure to infrared food lamps.6,7 There also are cultural practices that can cause EAI. For example, the practice of cupping with moxibustion was shown to create a specific pattern in the shape of the cultural tool used.38 When footbaths with Chinese herbal remedies are performed frequently with high heat, they can lead to EAI on the feet with a linear border at the ankles. There also have been reports of kotatsu (heated tables in Japan) leading to lower-body EAI.39,40 These cultural practices also are more common in patients with darker skin types, which can lead to hyperpigmentation that is difficult to treat, making early diagnosis important.7

Medical History—Case reports have shown EAI caused by patients attempting to use heat-based methods for pain relief of an underlying serious disease such as cancer, bowel pathology (abdominal EAI), spinal disc prolapse (midline back EAI),41 sickle cell anemia, and renal pathology (posterior upper flank EAI).6,7,40-49 Patients with hypothyroidism or anorexia have been noted to have generalized EAI sparing the face secondary to repeated and extended hot baths or showers.50-53 One patient with schizophrenia was shown to have associated thermophilia due to a delusion that led the patient to soak in hot baths for long periods of time, leading to EAI.54 Finally, all physicians should be aware of iatrogenic causes of EAI, such as use of warming devices, ultrasound-based warming techniques, and laser therapy for lipolysis. Inquire about the patient’s surgical history or intensive care unit stays as well as alternative medicine or chiropractic visits. Obtaining a history of medical procedures can be enlightening when an etiology is not immediately clear.7,55,56


Erythema ab igne is a clinical diagnosis based on recognizable cutaneous findings and a clear history of moderate heat exposure. However, when a clinical diagnosis of EAI is not certain (eg, when unable to obtain a clear history from the patient) or when malignant transformation is suspected, a biopsy can be performed. Pathologically, hematoxylin and eosin staining of EAI classically reveals dilated small vascular channels in the superficial dermis, hence a clinically reticular rash; interface dermatitis clinically manifesting as erythema; and pigment incontinence with melanin-laden macrophages consistent with clinical hyperpigmentation. Finally, for unclear reasons, increased numbers of elastic fibers classically are seen in biopsies of EAI.7


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