Cutaneous histopathology of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Grace F. Kao, Charles D. Evancho, Olga Ioffe, Mark H. Lowitt, J. Stephen Dumler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The dermatologic diagnosis of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is often presumptive; the clinical presentation includes skin rash and febrile illness with or without a clear history of tick bite. The characteristic cutaneous manifestations include a generalized skin eruption with purpuric, blanching or non-blanching macules and papules usually involving the extremities. Although skin biopsies are often performed to confirm the diagnosis, the spectrum of cutaneous histopathology in RMSF has not been well described. We studied a series of 26 cases of RMSF, of which 10 were surgical specimens and 16 were autopsies. The microscopic changes were correlated with the duration of illness. The main histopathologic feature was lymphohistiocytic capillaritis and venulitis with extravasation of erythrocytes, edema, predominantly perivascular and some interstitial infiltrate. Leukocytoclastic vasculitis (LCV) with neutrophilic infiltrate and nuclear dust was seen in 11 of 15 (73%) specimens from involved skin. These lesions with LCV also showed notable epidermal change including basal layer vacuolar degeneration with mild dermoepidermal interface lymphocytic exocytosis. Six lesions with LCV displayed focal fibrin thrombi and capillary wall necrosis. Apoptotic keratinocytes were noted in 3 lesions with LCV. Subepidermal blister was observed in the skin lesion of an autopsied patient with LCV changes. Another lesion of a fatal case with LCV also contained features of acute neutrophilic eccrine hidradenitis. Focal small nerve twig inflammation was noted in a third autopsy case with LCV. Plasma cells were seen in 6 of 34 specimens (18%); and eosinophils were observed in 3 (9%). The subcutaneous fat contained a mild perivascular inflammation and one case revealed focal lobular neutrophilic inflammation. Immunohistologic (IH) staining using polyclonal rabbit anti-Rickettsia rickettsii demonstrated positive staining of the organisms in the affected endothelial cells in all 12 cases tested. The cutaneous histopathology of RMSF is caused by endothelial damage by the rickettsial organisms which elicit an initial lymphohistiocytic small vessel vasculitis with progression to LCV. The vasculitis in RMSF is, therefore, considered to be a form of septic vasculitis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)604-610
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of cutaneous pathology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology
  • Dermatology


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