Derived from the Greek word meaning fish disease, ichthyosis is a congenital (meaning present at birth) dermatological (skin) disease that is represented by thick, scaly skin.
The ichthyoses are a group of genetic skin diseases caused by an abnormality in skin growth that results in drying and scaling. There are at least 20 types of ichthyosis. Ichthyosis can be more or less severe, sometimes accumulating thick scales and cracks that are painful and bleed. Ichthyosis is not contagious because it is inherited.
Depending on the specific type of ichthyosis, the inheritance can be autosomal recessive, autosomal dominant, X-linked recessive, X-linked dominant, or sporadic. Autosomal recessive means that the altered gene for the disease or trait is located on one of the first 22 pairs of chromosomes, which are also called "autosomes." Males and females are equally likely to have an autosomal recessive disease or trait. Recessive means that two copies of the altered gene are necessary to express the condition. Therefore, a child inherits one copy of the altered gene from each parent, who are called carriers (because they have only one copy of the altered gene). Since carriers do not express the altered gene, parents usually do not know they carry the altered gene that causes ichthyosis until they have an affected child. Carrier parents have a 1-in-4 chance (or 25%) with each pregnancy, to have a child with ichthyosis.
Autosomal dominant inheritance also means that both males and females are equally likely to have the disease but only one copy of the altered gene is necessary to have the condition. An individual with ichthyosis has a 50/50 chance to pass the condition to his or her child.
The last pair of human chromosomes, either two X (female) or one X and one Y (male) determines gender. X-linked means the altered gene causing the disease or trait is located on the X chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes while males have one X chromosome. The term "recessive" usually infers that two copies of a gene—one on each of the chromosome pair—are necessary to cause a disease or express a particular trait. X-linked recessive diseases are most often seen in males, however, because they have a single X chromosome, and no "back-up." So, if a male inherits a particular gene on the X, he expresses the altered gene, even though he has only a single copy of it. Females, on the other hand, have two X chromosomes, and therefore can carry a gene on one of their X chromosomes yet not express any symptoms. (Their second X, or "backup," functions normally). Usually a mother carries the altered gene for X-linked recessive ichthyosis unknowingly, and has a 50/50 chance with each pregnancy to transmit the altered gene. If the child is a male, he will have ichthyosis, while if the child is a female, she will be a carrier for ichthyosis like her mother.
X-linked dominant inheritance means that only one gene from the X chromosome is necessary to produce the condition. Mothers with the altered gene are affected, and have a 50/50 chance to pass the condition to any child, who will also have ichthyosis. In somes cases, X-linked dominant inheritance is lethal in males, which means that male fetuses with X-linked dominant ichthyosis are miscarried. This is true for a rare disorder called Conradi-Hunerman, in which ichthyosis is just one feature.
New mutations—alterations in the DNA of a gene—can cause disease. In these cases, neither parent has the disease-causing mutation. This may occur because the mutation in the gene happened for the first time only in the egg or sperm for that particular pregnancy. New mutations are thought to happen by chance and are therefore referred to as "sporadic," meaning that they occur occasionally and are not predictable.
The most common form of ichthyosis is called ichthyosis vulgaris (vulgar is Latin for common), and occurs in approximately one person in every 250 and is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner. The most rare types of ichthyosis occur in fewer than one person in one million and are inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. Ichthyosis occurs regardless of the part of the world the child is from, or the ethnic background of the parents.
Signs and symptoms
The skin is made up of several layers, supported underneath by a layer of fat that is thicker or thinner depending on location. The lower layers contain blood vessels, the middle layers contain actively growing cells, and the upper layer consists of dead cells that serve as a barrier to the outside world. This barrier is nearly waterproof and highly resistant to infection. Scattered throughout the middle layers are hair follicles, oil and sweat glands, and nerve endings. The upper layer is constantly flaking off and being replaced from beneath by new tissue. In ichthyosis, the skin's natural shedding process is slowed or inhibited, and in some types, skin cells are produced too rapidly.
The abnormality in skin growth and hydration called ichthyosis may present with symptoms at birth or in early childhood. Ichthyosis can itch relentlessly, leading to such complications of scratching as lichen simplex (dermatitis characterized by raw patches of skin). Either the cracking or the scratching can introduce infection, bringing with it discomfort and complications.
A dermatologist will often make the diagnosis of ichthyosis, based on a clinical exam. However, a skin biopsy, or DNA study (from a small blood sample) is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Evaluation for associated problems is done by a complete physical medical examination.
For some types of ichythyosis, the abnormal gene has been identified and prenatal testing is available. At present this is true for the autosomal recessive congenital ichythoses, which includes: lamellar ichthyosis (LI), autosomal recessive lamellar ichthyosis (ARLI), congenital ichthyosiform erythroderm (CIE), and non-bullous congenital ichthyosiform erythroderma (NBCIE).
There are four different genes that have been located for the autosomal recessive congenital ichthyoses, however, testing is available for only one gene called transglutaminase-1 (TGM1) located on chromosome 14. Once a couple has had a child with ichthyosis, and they have had the genetic cause identified by DNA studies (performed from a small blood sample), prenatal testing for future pregnancies may be considered. (Note that prenatal testing may not be possible if both mutations cannot be identified.) Prenatal diagnosis is available via either
Treatment and management
Most treatments for ichthyosis are topical, which means they are applied directly to the skin, not taken internally. Some forms of ichthyosis requires two forms of treatment—a reduction in the amount of scale buildup and moisturizing of the underlying skin. Several agents are available for each purpose. Reduction in the amount of scale is achieved by keratolytics. Among this class of drugs are urea, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. Petrolatum, 60% propylene glycol, and glycerin are successful moisturizing agents, as are many commercially-available products. Increased humidity of the ambient air is also helpful in preventing skin dryness.
Because the skin acts as a barrier to the outside environment, medicines have a hard time penetrating, especially through the thick skin of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. This resistance is diminished greatly by maceration (softening the skin). Soaking hands in water macerates skin so that it looks like prune skin. Occlusion (covering) with rubber gloves or plastic wrap will also macerate skin. Applying medicines and then covering the skin with an occlusive dressing will facilitate entrance of the medicine and greatly magnify its effect.
Secondary treatments are necessary to control pruritus (itching) and infection. Commercial products containing camphor, menthol, eucalyptus oil, aloe, and similar substances are very effective as antipruritics. If the skin cracks deeply enough, a pathway for infection is created. Topical antibiotics like bacitracin are effective in prevention and in the early stages of these skin infections. Cleansing with hydrogen peroxide inhibits infection as well.
This condition requires continuous care throughout a lifetime. Properly treated, in most cases it is a cosmetic problem. There are a small number of lethal forms, such as harlequin fetus.
Baden, Howard P. "Ichthyosiform Dermatoses." In Dermatology in General Medicine. Edited by Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993, pp. 531-544.
Parker, Frank. "Skin Diseases of General Importance." In Cecil Textbook of Medicine. Edited by J. Claude Bennett and Fred Plum. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1996, p. 2204.
Sybert, Virginia P. Genetic Skin Disorders. Oxford Monographs on Medical Genetics. No. 33. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Alliance of Genetic Support Groups. 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 404, Washington, DC 20008. (202) 966-5557. Fax: (202) 966-8553. <http://www.geneticalliance.org>.
Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types. 650 N. Cannon Ave., Suite 17, Landsdale, PA 19446. (215) 631-1411 or (800) 545-3286. Fax: (215) 631-1413. <http://www.scalyskin.org>.
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). PO Box 8923, New Fairfield, CT 06812-8923. (203) 746-6518 or (800) 999-6673. Fax: (203) 746-6481. <http://www.rarediseases.org>.
National Registry for Ichthyosis and Related Disorders. University of Washington Dermatology Department, Box 356524, 1959 N.E. Pacific, Rm. BB1353, Seattle, WA 98195-6524. (800) 595-1265 or (206) 616-3179. <http://www.skinregistry.org>.
The Alliance of Genetic Support Groups, Inc. <www.geneticalliance.org>.
Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types (FIRST). <www.scaleskin.org>.
Immune Deficiency Foundation. <www.primaryimmune.org>.
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). <www.rarediseases.org>.
The National Registry for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types. <http://depts.washington.edu/ichreg/ichthyosis.registry>.
Catherine L. Tesla, MS, CGC