Case Reports

Rowell Syndrome: Targeting a True Definition

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Ever since a rare syndrome of lupus erythematosus (LE) presenting with erythema multiforme (EM)–like lesions was described in 1963, clinicians have questioned the defining characteristics of the so-called Rowell syndrome (RS) in addition to its very existence as a unique pathological entity. In this article, we present a new case of RS and investigate the various components and criteria that have been outlined in the years since this syndrome’s original account.

Practice Points

  • Rowell syndrome (RS) is an often unrecognized unique presentation of lupus erythematosus.
  • There have been a variety of historical criteria that have sought to characterize RS.



Case Report

A 37-year-old woman was admitted to the intensive care unit secondary to the acute development of an erythematous rash with tissue sloughing that involved acral sites and mucosal surfaces. Her medical history was notable for anti-Ro/Sjögren syndrome antigen A (SS-A)–positive lupus erythematosus (LE) with a morphologic semblance to subacute cutaneous LE (SCLE). Prior treatment had included oral corticosteroids. In addition, she reported a concurrent history of acral and mucosal lesions that appeared to flare with her lupus. The nature of these lesions was not clear to the patient or her physicians. Before this particular episode, her primary care physician had attempted to wean her off of the corticosteroids. As she dropped below 20 mg of prednisone daily, new lesions developed. The patient stated that her social situation was poor and that these lesions did seem to develop more frequently during times of physical and emotional stress. She recounted her first episode developing during her second pregnancy. Oral prednisone and over-the-counter calcium with vitamin D were her only reported medications. She denied the use of any other medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and recent antibiotic therapy.

Dermatology was called in for consultation, and physical examination revealed areas of epidermal sloughing on the hands and feet. Complete clinical exposure of the underlying dermis was noted with remarkable tenderness. These lesions were noted to be in various stages of healing (Figure 1). Figure 2 displays a lesion in early development. The mucosal surfaces of the lips and eyes demonstrated hemorrhagic crusting, and some tissue sloughing was noted on the ears. A widespread erythematous exanthema with fine scaling was noted on the face, neck, chest, back, abdomen, arms, and legs (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Rowell syndrome lesions on the right hand (A) and right foot (B) in various stages of healing.

Figure 2. Acral lesion of Rowell syndrome in early development.

Figure 3. Rowell syndrome erythematous exanthema with fine scale on the knee.

Laboratory evaluation revealed positive antinuclear antibodies (ANAs), anti-Ro/SS-A antibodies, anti-La/Sjögren syndrome antigen B (SS-B) antibodies, and anti–double-stranded DNA. The hemoglobin level was 9.4 g/dL (reference range, 12–15 g/dL) and hematocrit was 28.8% (reference range, 36%–47%). The mean corpuscular hemoglobin level was 32 pg/cell (reference range, 27–31 pg/cell), and the mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration was 32.5 g/dL (reference range, 30–35 g/dL). Rheumatoid factor (RF) and herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 IgM were all found to be negative.

A deep shave biopsy obtained from the patient’s right knee revealed an atrophic interface dermatitis associated with a lymphocytic eccrine hidradenitis accompanied by abundant mesenchymal mucin deposition (Figure 4). Direct immunofluorescence (DIF) from the same area demonstrated IgG and IgM along the dermoepidermal junction with some granular deposition. Frozen sections performed on acral lesions demonstrated epidermal necrosis (Figure 5). Direct immunofluorescence of acral lesions was negative. In light of these findings, a diagnosis of Rowell syndrome (RS) was suspected to be the most likely explanation for the presentation.

Intravenous corticosteroids and antibiotics were administered, and over a 2-week hospitalization, the lesions on the feet and hands slowly reepithelialized. Physical therapy was required to aid in ambulation. The patient was discharged on a tapering course of oral prednisone and hydroxychloroquine. After 6 months of therapy with hydroxychloroquine 200 mg twice daily, the patient continued to experience recurrent bouts of acral lesions, and pulse doses of oral prednisone were required. The lesions currently are controlled with azathioprine 50 mg twice daily and prednisone 10 mg by mouth daily.

Figure 4. Rowell syndrome biopsy from a lesion on the patient’s right knee revealed an atrophic interface dermatitis associated with a lymphocytic eccrine hidradenitis accompanied by abundant mesenchymal mucin deposition (H&E, original magnification ×200).

Figure 5. Rowell syndrome biopsy from an acral lesion demonstrated epidermal necrosis (H&E, original magnification ×400).


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