American Journal of Clinical Dermatology

, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 177–188

HIV-Associated Pruritus

Etiology and Management
Therapy in Practice

DOI: 10.2165/00128071-200304030-00004

Cite this article as:
Singh, F. & Rudikoff, D. Am J Clin Dermatol (2003) 4: 177. doi:10.2165/00128071-200304030-00004


With the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), life-threatening opportunistic infection has become less common in patients with HIV infection and longevity has increased dramatically. With increased longevity, the problems of living with a chronic disease have become more prominent in this patient population. Disorders such as fat redistribution and metabolic abnormalities can result from antiviral medications and from HIV disease itself. Pruritus is one of the most common symptoms encountered in patients with HIV.

The spectrum of skin diseases in such patients encompasses dermatoses of diverse etiologies; a few are peculiar to patients with HIV while others are not. Some of these conditions may cause severe and sometimes intractable pruritus that provokes scratching, picking, disfigurement, sleep loss, and significant psychological stress. Moreover, the expense of ongoing medical treatments can be daunting. Skin rash can sometimes be the initial presentation of HIV infection or serve as a harbinger of disease progression.

Causes of pruritus include skin infections, infestations, papulosquamous disorders, photodermatitis, xerosis, drug reactions, and occasionally lymphoproliferative disorders. Drug eruptions are particularly common in patients who are HIV positive, presumably as a result of immune dysregulation, altered drug metabolism, and polypharmacy. Itching can also result from systemic diseases such as chronic renal failure, liver disease, or systemic lymphoma.

Workup of pruritus should include a careful examination of the skin, hair, nails, and mucous membranes to establish a primary dermatologic diagnosis. If no dermatologic cause is found, a systemic cause or medicationrelated etiology should be sought. Idiopathic HIV pruritus is a diagnosis of exclusion and should only be considered when a specific diagnosis cannot be established.

The management of HIV-associated pruritus should be directed at the underlying condition. Phototherapy has been found to be useful in the treatment of several HIV-associated dermatoses and idiopathic pruritus as well. Unfortunately, some of the treatments that have been suggested for patients with HIV are anecdotal or based on small uncontrolled studies. The last decade has seen a surge in the utilization of HAART which, to some degree, reconstitutes the immune system and ameliorates some dermatologic diseases. On the other hand, some skin diseases flare temporarily when HAART is started. Unless frank drug allergy is suspected, HAART does not need to be stopped.

Copyright information

© Adis International Limited 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of DermatologyMount Sinai Medical CenterNew YorkUSA

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