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Porphyria Cutanea Tarda


Herbert L. Bonkovsky

, MD, Wake Forest University School of Medicine;

Sean R. Rudnick

, MD, Wake Forest University School of Medicine

Full review/revision Dec 2020 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources
  • People have chronically recurring blisters on the sun-exposed areas of their bodies.

  • Excess iron can build up in the liver, causing liver damage.

  • Doctors test urine and stool samples for high levels of porphyrins.

  • Removing blood (phlebotomy), giving chloroquine (or hydroxychloroquine), or doing both is helpful.

Porphyrias are a group of disorders caused by deficiencies of enzymes involved in the production of heme. Heme is a chemical compound that contains iron and gives blood its red color. Heme is a key component of several important proteins in the body. (See also Overview of Porphyria Overview of Porphyrias Porphyrias are a group of disorders caused by deficiencies of enzymes involved in the production of heme. Heme is a chemical compound that contains iron and gives blood its red color. Heme is... read more .)

Porphyria cutanea tarda occurs throughout the world. There are two main types:

  • Type 1: Acquired or sporadic (in about 75 to 80% of people)

  • Type 2: Hereditary or familial (in about 20 to 25% of people)

As far as is known, the sporadic form of this porphyria is the only porphyria that can occur in people who do not have an inherited deficiency of an enzyme involved in heme production.

Porphyria cutanea tarda results from underactivity of the enzyme uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase, which leads to accumulation of porphyrins in the liver. Liver disease is common. About 35% of people develop cirrhosis Cirrhosis of the Liver Cirrhosis is the widespread distortion of the liver's internal structure that occurs when a large amount of normal liver tissue is permanently replaced with nonfunctioning scar tissue. The scar... read more Cirrhosis of the Liver and 7 to 24% develop liver cancer Primary Liver Cancers Primary liver cancers are cancers that originate in the liver. The most common is hepatocellular carcinoma (hepatoma). At first, liver cancer usually causes only vague symptoms (such as weight... read more . Skin damage occurs because excess porphyrins produced in the liver are transported by the blood to the skin.

Porphyria cutanea tarda has several common precipitating factors. These factors include

Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a viral infection that progressively destroys certain white blood cells and can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is transmitted... read more Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection (HIV) is a less common precipitating factor. These factors are thought to interact with iron and oxygen in the liver and thereby inhibit or damage the enzyme uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase.


Kidney failure, ultraviolet radiation (UVA), and certain drugs can cause symptoms that resemble those of porphyria cutanea tarda without elevated levels of porphyrin in the liver (a condition called pseudoporphyria).

Some people receiving hemodialysis for long periods develop a skin condition that resembles porphyria cutanea tarda because dialysis does not remove porphyrins well. This condition is termed pseudoporphyria of end-stage renal disease.

Symptoms of Porphyria Cutanea Tarda

People with the sporadic form may not develop symptoms until middle age. In the familial type, people may develop symptoms during childhood.

Symptoms may not begin immediately after exposure to sunlight, so people may not realize that sun exposure is causing the symptoms.

People with porphyria cutanea tarda experience chronic, recurring blisters of various sizes on sun-exposed areas such as the arms, face, and especially the backs of the hands. Crusting and scarring follow the blisters and take a long time to heal. The skin, especially on the hands, is fragile and sensitive to minor injury.

Sometimes sun exposure causes swelling, itching, or redness. Hair growth on the face and other sun-exposed areas may increase. Sometimes areas of dark or light patches of skin develop.

Diagnosis of Porphyria Cutanea Tarda

  • Testing blood, urine, and stool for porphyrins

To diagnose porphyria cutanea tarda, doctors test blood, urine, and stool for unusually high levels of porphyrins. The specific porphyrins that are increased provide a pattern that allows doctors to distinguish porphyria cutanea tarda from other porphyrias.

Doctors usually do tests to determine the factor that precipitated the development of porphyria cutanea tarda and to see whether there is too much iron in the liver. If people are not already known to have hepatitis C or HIV infection, doctors do tests for those disorders.

Treatment of Porphyria Cutanea Tarda

  • Removal of blood (phlebotomy)

  • Increase porphyrin excretion in the urine

Porphyria cutanea tarda is the most readily treated porphyria. Avoiding alcohol and other precipitating factors is beneficial. People should avoid sun exposure as much as possible and should wear hats and clothing to protect themselves from sun exposure. Sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide may be helpful. Typical sunscreens that block ultraviolet light are ineffective, but sunscreens that absorb ultraviolet A light, such as those containing dibenzylmethanes, may be effective.

For people with hepatitis C virus infection or HIV infection, treating these disorders helps the porphyria.


A procedure called phlebotomy, in which a pint (almost half a liter) of blood is removed, is the most widely recommended treatment. Doctors typically do 6 to 10 sessions of phlebotomy, with sessions two to four weeks apart. With phlebotomy, the excess iron is gradually removed, the activity of uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase in the liver returns toward normal, and porphyrin levels in the liver and blood fall gradually. The skin symptoms resolve.

Phlebotomy sessions are stopped when people become slightly iron deficient (or almost so). Anemia may develop if too many phlebotomy sessions are done or if sessions are done too frequently.

For people taking estrogen, doctors stop the estrogen therapy (because it is a precipitating factor of the porphyria) until phlebotomy has been completed and porphyrin levels are normal.

Drugs to increase porphyrin excretion

Very low doses of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine are also effective in treating porphyria cutanea tarda. These drugs remove excess porphyrins from the liver by increasing their excretion in the urine. However, doses that are too high cause porphyrins to be removed too rapidly, resulting in a temporary worsening of the disorder and damage to the liver.

Drugs to treat chronic hepatitis C

Several drugs and combinations of drugs that are highly effective for the treatment and cure of chronic hepatitis C have become available within the past 5 years. Use of these drugs, along with decreasing alcohol use and quitting smoking can usually treat and cure both the hepatitis and porphyria cutanea tarda.

More Information

The following is an English-language resource that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

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