From the Journals

Are there COVID-19–related ‘long-haul’ skin issues?



A follow-up look at an international registry suggests that some people may have persistent, long-lasting dermatologic manifestations – especially so-called “COVID toes” – as a result of infection with or exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but some dermatologists question if the skin signs and symptoms are truly related.

Dr. Esther Freeman, director of global health dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

Dr. Esther Freeman

In their commentary in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, Esther P. Freeman, MD, PhD, and colleagues who lead and participate in the American Academy of Dermatology’s international registry said their analysis “revealed a previously unreported subset of patients who experience long-haul symptoms in dermatology-dominant COVID-19.”

Some of the data was presented at the 29th European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology in late October 2020, but has since been updated with more cases.

Dermatologists who spoke with this news organization said it has not been settled that some skin manifestations – such as pernio/chilblains rashes, seen primarily in nonhospitalized patients, and described in the registry – are definitively caused by COVID. They also noted that in some cases, patients who initially test negative for COVID-19 by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) sometimes do not ever develop antibodies, which could mean they were never actually exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

Dr. Anthony Fernandez of the Cleveland Clinic M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Anthony Fernandez

“I still question whether the perniosis is directly related to infection with SARS-CoV-2 or not,” said Anthony Fernandez, MD, PhD, director of medical and inpatient dermatology and assistant professor of dermatopathology at the Cleveland Clinic. His uncertainty is driven by the lack of seroconversion and that few cases were seen over the summer in the United States – suggesting that it may still be a result of cold temperatures.

“I’m not sure there is a definitive correct answer, definitely not that everyone would agree on,” said Christine Ko, MD, professor of dermatology and pathology at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Dr. Freeman, however, believed that pernio and especially persistent lesions are caused by an immune response to COVID.

In an interview, she noted the multiple cases of patients in the registry who did seroconvert and that, while a registry is not a perfect means of getting an answer, it is good for generating questions. Taken collectively, the cases in the registry can “tell a story for further hypotheses,” said Dr. Freeman, who is director of global health dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard University, both in Boston.

“We were noticing this signal across the world” that patients “developed these toe lesions and they never got better,” said Dr. Freeman. Generally, people who experience pernio, also described as COVID toes or “COVID fingers,” recover in 4-8 weeks. But in the registry, “we did have this subset of patients who really were experiencing these very longstanding symptoms,” she added.

Two patients with lab-confirmed COVID have had long-lasting pernio of 133 days and 150 days. “I’m caring for a cohort in Boston who have had long COVID of the skin and symptoms for over 10 months,” Dr. Freeman said.


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