Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome

Article Author:
Adam Ross
Article Editor:
Hugh Shoff
6/10/2019 8:25:59 AM
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Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome


Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome, also known as Ritter disease is a disease characterized by denudation of the skin caused by exotoxin producing strains of the Staphylococcus species, typically from a distant site. It usually presents 48 hours after birth and is rare in children older than six years. It may also present in immunocompromised adults or those with severe renal disease.[1]


Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome is caused by the epidermolytic exotoxin that is produced by some strains of Staphylococcus. There are at least two toxins that cause Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome. However, testing for the specific phage type is not helpful or available. The disease usually follows a localized infection from the upper respiratory tract, ears, conjunctiva, or umbilical stump. In adults, it may result from an abscess, arteriovenous fistula infection, or septic arthritis, among others. Often a source cannot be identified. [1]


The incidence of Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome is relatively low. A study in the Czech Republic showed an incidence of approximately 25 cases per 100,000 children younger than one year of age. Most cases occur in children younger than two years old. Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome can occur in outbreaks, particularly in nurseries. It is far less common in adults. When they do occur, cases in adults typically involve those with immunosuppression such as HIV/AIDS, severe renal impairment or renal failure, or in those with malignancy.[2][1]


Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome is caused by toxin-producing strains of Staphylococcus bacteria. These toxins target the desmoglein 1 complex in the zona granulosa of the epidermis, resulting in skin exfoliation. It can range from a mild localized form to exfoliation of the entire body. Those with previous antibodies are more likely to have the localized form. The resultant skin loss predisposes patients to hypothermia and a large volume fluid loss, as well as, the potential for additional or worsening infections. [1]

History and Physical

Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome initially presents with irritability, fever, and malaise. Within 24 to 48 hours, a very tender rash develops. The rash typically starts on the face and flexures (groin, axillae, neck) with erythema and fissures. Soon after this, large thin blisters form. The characteristic flaccid, blisters and bullae contain anything from thin, sterile cloudy fluid to frank yellow pus underneath. Unlike scarlet fever, the rash of Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome tends to be more tender, and the skin exfoliates.

The disease may present with only localized blisters. However, in its classic form, the disease progresses to a diffuse, markedly erythematous rash with significant tenderness. Further progression transitions to flaccid blisters and desquamation. Nikolsky’s sign is present. Patients may appear well or present with fulminant sepsis with hypotension and shock. There is typically no mucous membrane involvement with Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome, although they may be hyperemic. This can help in differentiating Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome from Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, which does involve the mucosal surfaces. Skin typically heals within two weeks. [1]


Basic Labs such as complete blood cell count (CBC) with differential and urinalysis (UA) should be obtained to assess for sepsis in any patient with more than the localized form of Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome. Electrolytes should be checked if dehydration is suspected. Blood cultures and cultures of blister fluid are typically negative. However, in critically ill patients, cultures and sensitivities from any potential source should be obtained to determine the source of infection. Culture from the site of suspected primary infection is warranted. A skin biopsy or frozen section of blister roof can be very helpful, as it will aid in diagnosis and to help differentiate from other conditions such as toxic shock syndrome or other vesiculobullous diseases. [1]

Treatment / Management

Antibiotics covering staphylococcus should be administered early and include: Nafcillin or Oxacillin for methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA). Vancomycin should be administered if methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is suspected, especially in those with recent healthcare exposure or in areas with a high prevalence of MRSA. Topical antibiotics alone are not effective, and even localized Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome should be treated with systemic antibiotics. If concern for a secondary bacterial skin infection arises, additional antibiotics with pseudomonas coverage should be started. Intravenous (IV) fluids should be administered in those with signs of dehydration or and/or sepsis. [3][1]

Emollients and non-adherent dressings should be applied to the skin and denuded areas to promote healing and reduce heat loss. Supportive care including management of dehydration, temperature regulation, and nutrition is of critical importance. Patients with significant skin involvement are prone to hypothermia and fluid loss due to the loss of the epidermis. Application of silver sulfadiazine should be avoided given the potential for increased systemic absorption and resultant toxicity. [4]

Those with very mild, localized disease may be discharged home on oral antibiotics and close follow-up with their primary care physician, though more severe cases should be admitted. Severe cases may benefit from admission to a burn unit when possible. Patients with Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome should be isolated from others to prevent further infections and outbreaks. Hand hygiene with contact isolation and proper cleaning of objects such as stethoscopes are important in preventing additional outbreaks in hospitals. Potential carriers of toxin-producing strains of staph aureus should be identified and treated to prevent outbreaks. Those caring for the patient should undergo nasal swab testing for S. aureus and be treated if positive. 

Those patients who are recognized early and treated appropriately overall have a very good prognosis. The mortality rate in children is less than 5%. Within a few days of treatment, fevers subside, and the rash begins to improve. Skin desquamation usually occurs within five days with complete resolution within two weeks, typically without any permanent sequelae. In adults, however, the mortality rate is much higher, up to 59% in one study.  [1]

Differential Diagnosis

  • Bullous Impetigo
  • Toxic Shock Syndrome
  • Scarlet Fever
  • Kawasaki Disease
  • Cellulitis
  • Impetigo
  • Thermal Burn
  • Stevens Johnson Syndrome/Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN)
  • Epidermolysis Bullosa [5]


Generally, pediatric patients do well with minimal to no scarring, and healing typically occurs within 2 weeks. The mortality rate in children is <5%. Adults have much higher mortality, as high as 60%. [1][6]


Complications include dehydration, secondary infections, sepsis, renal failure, and scarring.[7]


Consultation with a Dermatologist should be considered if the diagnosis is uncertain. Burn Centers and/or Burn Physicians should be consulted in severe cases. 

Pearls and Other Issues

There is typically no mucosal involvement in Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome which may help differentiate it from Scarlet Fever, Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), and toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) which all involve mucous membranes. The demographics of these diseases also tend to be different, as Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome is more common in neonates, whereas TSS, for example, tends to occur in patients using tampons, nasal packing, as well as, those who have had recent surgery. Colonized caregivers and those with patient contact require treatment with Chlorhexidine, and nasal carriers should be treated with topical mupirocin. The mortality is relatively low in children when appropriate treatment is initiated, but it is much higher in adults even with appropriate antibiotic and supportive therapy. [8][1]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

It is important to approach the diagnosis and management of Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome as a team, particularly with unclear cases. Expert consultation with Dermatologists can help eliminate alternative diagnoses and guide treatment. In severe cases, referral to a burn center with experts in wound care should strongly be considered in order to reduce fluid losses and prevent scarring. 

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[1] Clinical, microbial, and biochemical aspects of the exfoliative toxins causing staphylococcal scalded-skin syndrome., Ladhani S,Joannou CL,Lochrie DP,Evans RW,Poston SM,, Clinical microbiology reviews, 1999 Apr     [PubMed PMID: 10194458]
[2] Epidemiological data of staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome in France from 1997 to 2007 and microbiological characteristics of Staphylococcus aureus associated strains., Lamand V,Dauwalder O,Tristan A,Casalegno JS,Meugnier H,Bes M,Dumitrescu O,Croze M,Vandenesch F,Etienne J,Lina G,, Clinical microbiology and infection : the official publication of the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 2012 Dec     [PubMed PMID: 23078129]
[3] Antibiotic sensitivity and resistance patterns in pediatric staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome., Braunstein I,Wanat KA,Abuabara K,McGowan KL,Yan AC,Treat JR,, Pediatric dermatology, 2014 May-Jun     [PubMed PMID: 24033633]
[4] Use of skin substitute dressings in the treatment of staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome in neonates and young infants., Baartmans MG,Dokter J,den Hollander JC,Kroon AA,Oranje AP,, Neonatology, 2011     [PubMed PMID: 21150225]
[5] Franco L,Pereira P, Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome. Indian pediatrics. 2016 Oct 8     [PubMed PMID: 27771692]
[6] Jordan KS, Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome: A Pediatric Dermatological Emergency. Advanced emergency nursing journal. 2019 Apr/Jun     [PubMed PMID: 31033660]
[7] Haggerty J,Grimaldo F, A Desquamating Skin Rash in a Pediatric Patient. Clinical practice and cases in emergency medicine. 2019 May     [PubMed PMID: 31061964]
[8] Nosocomial outbreak of staphyloccocal scalded skin syndrome in neonates in England, December 2012 to March 2013., Paranthaman K,Bentley A,Milne LM,Kearns A,Loader S,Thomas A,Thompson F,Logan M,Newitt S,Puleston R,, Euro surveillance : bulletin Europeen sur les maladies transmissibles = European communicable disease bulletin, 2014 Aug 21     [PubMed PMID: 25166346]