M. Gooderham, MSc, MD, FRCPC1; C. Lynde, MD, FRCPC2,3; J. Kraft, HBSc, MD, FRCPC3; K. Beleznay, MD, FRCPC, FAAD4; M. Bourcier, MD, FRCPC5; S. Fahim, MD, FRCPC6; M. Gilbert, MD, FRCPC7; E. Hayes, MD, FRCPC8; J. Keddy-Grant, MD, FRCPC9; M. Kirchhof, MD, PhD, FRCPC10; I. Landells, MD, FRCPC11; J. Mercer, MD, FRCPC, FAAD12; A. Metelitsa, MD, FRCPC13; R. Miller, MD, FRCPC14; S. Nigen, MD, BPharm, FRCPC15; Y. Poulin, MD, FRCPC16; M. Robern, MD, FRCPC17; N. H. Shear, BASc, MD, FRCPC18; C. Zip, MD, FRCPC19

1Skin Centre for Dermatology, Peterborough, ON and Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada
2Associate Professor, University of Toronto, ON, Canada
3Lynde Institute for Dermatology, Markham, ON, Canada
4Clinical Instructor, Department of Dermatology and Skin Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
5Assistant Professor in Clinical Teaching faculty of medicine, Sherbrooke University, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
6Assistant Professor, Division of Dermatology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
7Dermatology, CHU de Québec-Université Laval, Quebéc, QC, Canada
8Centre hospitalier universitaire Dr-Georges-L.-Dumont, Moncton, NB, Canada
9Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
10Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada
11Clinical Associate Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL, Canada
12Clinical Assistant Professor, Discipline of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL, Canada
13Associate Clinical Professor Dermatology, University of Calgary, AB, Canada
14Associate Professor, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
15Université de Montréal, Montréal and Dermatologie Sima Recherches, Verdun, QC, Canada
16Dermatology, CHU de Québec-Université Laval, Québec, QC, Canada
17Ottawa, ON, Canada
18Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
19Division of Dermatology, Department of Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada


Chronic hand dermatitis (CHD) can affect up to 10% of the population and have a significant impact on quality of life (QoL).1-3 It presents as a chronic, recurrent, inflammatory condition with erythema, scaling, fissuring, pruritus and lichenification of the hands. The etiology is multi-factorial and includes both genetic and environmental factors.1Treatment is notoriously difficult as symptoms frequently recur despite standard therapy. Undertreated CHD can lead to a substantial burden on patients as well as an economic burden on society due to reduced work productivity and many work-related compensation claims.2-5

Recently, practical guidelines for the management of CHD were published in the Skin Therapy Letter, Family Practice Edition (October 2016).6 This series of cases using alitretinoin (Toctino®, GlaxoSmithKline and distributed by Actelion, Laval, QC) is a follow on to that publication to put the guidelines into context.

Abbreviations: AEs – adverse events, CHD – chronic hand dermatitis, ENT – ear, nose, and throat, HD – hand dermatitis, QoL – quality of life

Diagnosing HD – Important points to cover

  • Determine if the patient has eczema, or a childhood history of eczema (erythematous, scaling patches with some fissuring in typical locations).
  • Ask about a personal or family history of atopy, including asthma, seasonal ENT allergies, nasal polyps.
  • Ask about a history of psoriasis and comorbidities such as psoriatic arthritis.
  • Does the patient have occupational exposures that could lead to allergic or irritant contact dermatitis?
  • Has the patient had any recent exposures to irritants? Frequent handwashing?
  • Do a skin scraping for fungal KOH and culture to rule out tinea manuum, as needed.
Differential Diagnosis: Chronic HD
  • Allergic contact dermatitis
  • Irritant contact dermatitis
  • Psoriasis
  • Tinea manuum
  • Cutaneous T cell lymphoma
  • Bowen’s disease (squamous cell carcinoma in situ)


Case 1:

A 39-year old dairy farmer presented with a 15-year history of redness, scaling and painful fissuring of the hands. He has used multiple potent topical steroids over the years with only temporary benefit. Despite the continued use of topical steroids he reported that his symptoms always return. After a skin scraping for fungal culture was taken and reported negative, he was referred to a dermatologist for assessment.

A diagnosis of CHD was confirmed. Given the failure of potent topical steroids for >8 weeks and inability to attend regular phototherapy sessions, his dermatologist started him on alitretinoin 30 mg PO QD for a 6-month course. By week 12, his hands were almost clear and by week 24, his hands were clear. He stopped the medication after a 6-month course of alitretinoin and entered into remission. At follow up appointments at year 5 and year 11, his hands remained clear. (Figure 1 and 2)

  • Alitretinoin (9-cis retinoic acid) is an endogenous retinoid (physiological vitamin A derivative) and is the only systemic agent approved for CHD. It has proven to be safe and effective for the treatment of CHD in controlled clinical trials7-10 and in real-world experience.11-15
  • In the pivotal BACH trial, 1032 patients with CHD were treated with alitretinoin (10 mg, 30 mg) or placebo for up to 24 weeks. The group that received alitretinoin 30 mg QD had up to a 75% median reduction in signs and symptoms and 48% were clear or almost clear at the week 24 time point.8
  • In patients who were clear/almost clear, 67% did not relapse within 24 weeks off therapy. In those patients who did relapse, 80% of those re-treated with 30 mg QD recaptured their response.9
  • Approximately half of those patients receiving 10 mg QD and 40% of those receiving 30 mg QD who did not initially respond to alitretinoin, did respond to retreatment with the 30 mg QD dose for an additional 24 weeks.10
  • The majority of patients do not require long-term management with alitretinoin as some patients enter a remission period with 24 weeks of therapy. For those who relapse and require re-treatment, the majority recapture their response9 and in those patients who require ongoing therapy, there are no safety concerns with continuous dosing.10,12,13

Progress of alitretinoin treatment
Figure 1. Prescribed alitretinoin 30mg PO QD. (1A) Day 0, (1B) Week 4, (1C) Week 12, (1D) Week 16. Photos courtesy of Dr. Yves Poulin
Progress of alitretinoin treatment
Figure 2. No further prescribed systemic or topical treatments since 2005. (2A) Year 5, (2B) Year 11. Photos courtesy of Dr. Yves Poulin

Figure 2. No further prescribed systemic or topical treatments since 2005. (2A) Year 5, (2B) Year 11.Photos courtesy of Dr. Yves Poulin

Case 2:

A 52-year old female teacher presented with a 15-year history of recurrent CHD. She had tried numerous moisturizers and mild to superpotent topical steroids over the years without relief. She tried 6 months of narrowband UVB phototherapy with only partial resolution. She was frustrated and looking for a better solution. Her past medical history is significant for obesity and hypothyroidism. Her dermatologist started her on alitretinoin 30 mg PO QD with excellent response. However, her baseline liver enzymes were 1.5 times the upper limit of normal and 2 months after initiating therapy, increased to 3 times the upper limit so the alitretinoin was discontinued.

Ultrasound demonstrated fatty liver and further work up revealed diabetes. After initiation of metformin and 10 kg of weight loss, the patient’s transaminases returned to within the normal range but her CHD flared. A repeat course of phototherapy and superpotent topical steroids failed again. Slow re-introduction of alitretinoin at 10 mg, followed by 20 mg and then 30 mg led to recapture of response and her transaminases have remained within normal range throughout a continued 3-year course of therapy with alitretinoin.

  • In clinical trials, alitretinoin was well tolerated by the majority of patients, although a dose dependent effect was noted with the AE of headache (up to 21.6% with 30 mg dose, 11.6% with 10 mg dose) and with mucocutaneous side effects.8-10
  • Laboratory abnormalities consistent with a retinoid class effect were noted in the trials, with dose dependent elevations in serum cholesterol and triglycerides most commonly noted; reduced thyroid stimulating hormone was reported, but there were no cases of clinical hypothyroidism.8-10
  • A hepatic effect of alitretinoin was not identified in the clinical trials8-10 or in real-world studies,11,14 however transient and reversible increases in transaminases have been noted in the product monograph.16 In the case presented, her transaminitis was likely related to her underlying fatty liver; she had no further issues with ongoing alitretinoin use, once she had proper management of her comorbid conditions (obesity, diabetes). If persistent elevations in transaminases are noted, reduction of the dose or discontinuation should be considered.16
  • Post-marketing surveillance of the use of alitretinoin has identified AEs of special interest in the retinoid class that were not identified in clinical trials. Depression has been reported as well as very rare cases of inflammatory bowel disease and benign intracranial hypertension.14
  • Work-up and monitoring for patients taking alitretinoin is similar to other commonly used retinoids (isotretinoin, acitretin) and should include: baseline hepatic transaminases and lipid profiles, repeated at one month, and then every 2-3 months during therapy. Beta-HCG should be done in women of child-bearing potential prior to initiation of therapy and repeated monthly during therapy and one month after discontinuation.16
  • Retinoids are potent teratogens so practitioners should follow the Pregnancy Prevention Program,16 and women of child-bearing potential should be counselled on strict pregnancy prevention, use of two highly effective forms of birth control simultaneously and be monitored monthly with a serum pregnancy test.16
  • Of 2 pregnancies reported in the clinical trials and 12 in post-marketing reports, 13 pregnancies were terminated early (elective or spontaneous abortion) and one healthy baby was born. No congenital abnormalities have been reported to date.14

Case 3:

A 68-year old retired woman had been suffering from hand dermatitis for the past 3 years since she had been at home caring for her elderly husband. She had been applying emollients throughout the day and trying to avoid frequent hand washing. Neither the potent topical corticosteroid nor the topical calcineurin inhibitor prescribed for her have helped. She was finding chores at home difficult with fissured finger tips and could not enjoy her hobbies of knitting or gardening because of the painful fissures. She was started on alitretinoin at 30 mg PO QD and noted good response, however she suffered from frequent headaches. Her dose was reduced to 10 mg PO QD with partial return of her CHD symptoms. Addition of a potent topical steroid and a course of narrowband UVB phototherapy to the alitretinoin 10 mg QD provided an effective combination regimen to control her CHD.

  • Although clinical trials excluded concomitant therapy with topical medications or phototherapy, these concomitant treatments are often continued or added in real-world practice.11,13
  • Narrowband UVB phototherapy has been shown to be effective in CHD.17
  • We know from vast experience in treating psoriasis, the combination of retinoids and UVB phototherapy is a very safe and effective way to optimize treatment outcomes and can reduce the cumulative dose of UVB exposure.18,19
  • According to expert opinion based on the experiences of the authors, combination of alitretinoin with topical corticosteroids or phototherapy is safe, can improve responses and may be a good option for patients who can only tolerate the 10 mg QD dose or who have not reached clear/almost clear status with the 30 mg QD dose.13
  • Regardless of the combination of treatments selected, always remember to assess adherence and counsel each patient on appropriate prevention and avoidance strategies, regular moisturization and proper use of medications.6 (see Figure 3)

Treatment algorithm for the management of severe chronic hand dermatitis
Figure 3. Treatment algorithm for the management of severe chronic hand dermatitis (HD). CHD – chronic hand dermatitis, TCS – topical corticosteroid.


Case 4:

A 34-year-old mechanic presented with a 3.5-year history of CHD. His job is dependent on the use of his hands and he has a young family to support. He responded poorly to multiple courses of mid to superpotent topical steroids and a topical calcineurin inhibitor. Contact dermatitis was suspected and he was referred to a dermatologist for patch testing.

Patch testing with the North American Contact Dermatitis Group standard series revealed a positive reaction to methylisothiazolinone, which happened to be an ingredient in the citrus hand scrub he used at work and in the wet wipes he used when changing his child’s diaper. Modification of his home and work place environment to avoid this allergen has improved his CHD somewhat but it is not clear and is still causing problems at work. He was fearful of jeopardizing his employment and requested further treatment. A course of alitretinoin at 30 mg QD was initiated with good response and he continued to avoid methylisothiazolinone at work and home.

  • CHD may be related to a contact dermatitis, which can be either irritant contact dermatitis or in some cases allergic contact dermatitis.20 Many times patients also have an underlying atopic diathesis putting them at increased risk of developing hand dermatitis.21
  • Contact dermatitis should be suspected when patients are not responding to treatment or worsening despite therapy; these patients should be referred for patch testing.20,21
  • Many different allergens can be responsible for the onset or exacerbation of CHD. In this particular patient’s case, methylisothizolinene, a common preservative in personal care products,21-23 was a factor. This outlines the importance of patch testing, and considering contact dermatitis in the differential diagnosis.
  • Whether the patient has CHD of unknown etiology or due to irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis or underlying atopic dermatitis, alitretinoin is still an option for management as second line therapy after failure of potent or superpotent topical steroids. Patch testing can help determine if an allergen should be avoided as part of the management plan, although lengthy wait times for this test in some jurisdictions should not delay therapy. In some cases, once identified, allergen avoidance may be all that is necessary for symptom resolution.
  • In the real-world observational study, PASSION, it was shown that treating CHD with alitretinoin resulted in significant and rapid improvement in symptoms, increased QoL and reduced work impairment. The number of patients rated as ‘disabled’ was reduced from 12.4% at baseline to 2.2% at week 24, and those reporting no work impairment increased from 2.7% at baseline to 63.7% at week 24, showing that alitretinoin can significantly reduce work incapacity.15


CHD is a common condition causing a significant impact on quality of life and an economic burden due to reduced productivity and cause for disability. Many patients do not respond to standard treatments, making it a challenging condition to manage. This case series is a follow on to a recent publication of practical guidelines for the general practitioner on the management of CHD, to put the use of alitretinoin in context. The addition of alitretinoin to our therapeutic armamentarium has changed the way we are able to manage patients who suffer from this condition, providing a safe and effective treatment option to improve QoL and reduce work impairment. When managing patients with CHD, we must always remember to confirm the diagnosis, assess adherence, counsel our patients on prevention and avoidance strategies, encourage moisturization and proper use of medications and refer patients for patch testing if a contact allergy is suspected.

Patient Resources:


The authors wish to acknowledge Evert Tuyp, MD, FRCPC for his editorial assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.


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