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Ichthyosis Vulgaris

What is ichthyosis vulgaris?

Ichthyosis vulgaris is an inherited skin condition that occurs when your skin doesn’t shed its dead skin cells. This causes dry, dead skin cells to accumulate in patches on the surface of your skin. It’s also known as "fish scale disease" because the dead skin accumulates in a similar pattern to a fish’s scales.

The majority of cases are mild and confined to specific areas of the body. However, some cases are severe and cover large areas of the body, including the abdomen, back, arms, and legs.

Pictures of Ichthyosis Vulgaris

Symptoms of ichthyosis vulgaris

Symptoms of ichthyosis vulgaris include:

  • flaky scalp
  • itchy skin
  • polygon-shaped scales on the skin
  • scales that are brown, gray, or white
  • severely dry skin
  • thickened skin

Symptoms of ichthyosis vulgaris are typically worse in winter, when the air is colder and dryer. The patches of dry skin typically appear on the elbows and lower legs, most often affecting the shins in thick, dark segments. In severe cases, ichthyosis vulgaris may also cause deep, painful cracks to develop on the soles of your feet or palms of your hands.

What causes ichthyosis vulgaris?

Ichthyosis vulgaris may be present at birth or appear in the first few years of a child’s life, but it typically disappears during early childhood. Some people may never have symptoms again, but for others, it can return during adulthood.

As with many other skin conditions, genetics play a role in the transmission of ichthyosis vulgaris. The condition follows an autosomal dominant pattern. This means that only one parent needs to possess the mutated gene in order to pass it onto his or her child. It is one of the most common of all inherited skin disorders.

In rare cases, adults can develop ichthyosis vulgaris even if they don’t carry the defective gene. Though this is rare, it’s most often associated with other conditions, including cancer, kidney failure, or thyroid disease.

Ichthyosis vulgaris may also occur along with other skin disorders, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) or keratosis pilaris. Atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema, is known for causing extremely itchy skin rashes. The affected skin may also be thick and covered in scales. The white or red skin bumps caused by keratosis pilaris can look similar to acne, but they usually appear on the arms, thighs, or buttocks. This condition can also cause rough patches of skin.

How is ichthyosis vulgaris diagnosed?

A doctor specializing in skin disorders, called a dermatologist, can typically diagnose ichthyosis vulgaris by sight.

Your doctor will ask you about any family history of skin diseases, the age you first experienced symptoms, and whether you have any other skin disorders.

Your doctor will also record where the patches of dry skin appear. This will help your doctor track the effectiveness of your treatment.

Your doctor may also perform other tests, such as a blood test or skin biopsy. This will rule out other skin conditions, such as psoriasis, that cause similar symptoms. A skin biopsy involves removing a small section of the affected skin for examination under a microscope.

Treating ichthyosis vulgaris

There is currently no cure for ichthyosis vulgaris. However, treatment can help you manage your symptoms.

Home treatments

Exfoliating your skin with a loofa or a pumice stone after you bathe can help you remove the excess skin.

You should also regularly apply moisturizers that have urea or propylene glycol in them. These chemicals will help your skin stay moist. Using products with urea, lactic, or salicylic acid can also help your skin shed dead cells. Using a humidifier in your home will add moisture into the air and keep your skin from drying out.

Prescription treatments

Your doctor may also prescribe specialized creams or ointments to help moisturize the skin, get rid of dead skin, and control inflammation and itching. These may include topical treatments containing the following ingredients:

  • Lactic acid or other alpha hydroxy acids: These compounds, also used in antiaging cosmetics, help the skin retain moisture and reduce scaling.
  • Retinoids: Retinoids may be used in difficult cases to slow your body’s production of skin cells. These substances are derived from vitamin A, so they may have some adverse side effects. These may include lip swelling, hair loss, or birth defects if taken during pregnancy.

Living with ichthyosis vulgaris

Living with ichthyosis vulgaris and similar skin conditions is difficult at times, especially for children. If the cosmetic impact of the condition becomes too much, you may want to attend a support group or see a mental health professional. These therapies can help you to regain your confidence and deal with any emotional difficulties you may encounter.

The key to living with this condition is learning to make management of this disease part of your daily routine. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Brian Krans
Medically reviewed on: Sep 30, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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