Pellagra: a review with emphasis on photosensitivity


  • Funding sources
    Nevill Hall Hospital, Thrombosis and General Research Fund, U.K., Academic Dermatology, St Woolos Hospital, Newport, U.K. and Department of Dermatology, Ruijin Hospital, School of Medicine, Shanghai Jiaotong University, China.

  • Conflicts of interest
    None declared.

Pengjie Wan.


Niacin has recently been demonstrated to lower blood pressure in hypertensive patients and to reduce cardiovascular events when combined with a statin. As a consequence, niacin has been elevated from being of historical interest as the treatment for pellagra, to being a compound with possible relevance to contemporary therapeutics. In spite of this, niacin deficiency leading to pellagra continues to be a health problem in some countries. Characterized by an exposed-site hyperpigmented dermatitis, pellagra is generally accepted to have been the first photosensitivity syndrome described. At its worst, pellagra manifests as one of the most striking examples of systemic photosensitivity. This is the only photosensitivity syndrome where death is included as a cardinal clinical feature (the often quoted four ‘Ds’: dermatitis, diarrhoea, dementia and death). However, the pathogenetic mechanism for the photosensitivity caused by niacin deficiency has yet to be determined. This review seeks to update the classification and phenotypic characterization of the various forms of niacin-deficient photosensitivity. Previous speculation about possible mechanisms for the pathogenesis of photosensitivity due to niacin deficiency is reviewed in the context of advances in the understanding of the photochemical basis of photosensitivity reactions. The review concludes by highlighting research required to advance the understanding of this photosensitivity syndrome.