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Brief Report
ARTICLE IN PRESS
doi:
10.25259/IJDVL_85_2022

Clinicodermoscopic and immunopathological profile of non-infectious non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reactions: A retrospective study from a tertiary care centre of East India

Department of Pathology, AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
Department of Dermatology, AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
Corresponding author: Dr. Biswanath Behera, Department of Dermatology, AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India. biswanathbehera61@gmail.com
Licence
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 License, which allows others to remix, transform, and build upon the work non-commercially, as long as the author is credited and the new creations are licensed under the identical terms.

How to cite this article: Sethy M, Behera B, Dash S, Palit A, Nayak AK, Ayyanar P. Clinicodermoscopic and immunopathological profile of non-infectious non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reactions: A retrospective study from a tertiary care centre of East India. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol doi: 10.25259/IJDVL_85_2022

Abstract

Introduction

Tattoo-associated complications are on the rise due to the popularity of decorative tattoos in recent years. The exact pathogeneses of various tattoo reaction patterns are still unclear, and their dermoscopic details are sparsely reported.

Aim

We aimed to retrospectively study the clinical, dermoscopic and immunopathological details of patients with non-infectious, non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reaction patterns in a tertiary care centre of East India.

Method

The clinical, dermoscopic and pathological details of all the patients who had non-infectious, non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reactions were collected. In all the cases, immunohistochemistry was done for CD1a, CD3, CD4, CD8, FoxP3, CD20 and CD56.

Results

A total of five patients of skin phototypes IV and V and six tattoo reactions were analysed. Five lesions had reactions at the site of a black tattoo, and one at the site of red tattoo. Clinically, the patients presented with erythematous or blue-grey flat-topped to verrucous papules and plaques. Dermoscopic features were dominated by a central white to pink-white structureless area, a peripheral grey-white to bluish-white structureless area, white scales, comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging, milia-like cysts and shiny white structures. Pathologically, except for one lesion that only showed a lichenoid reaction pattern in the red tattoo, all had a combination of reaction patterns. Immunohistochemistry showed increased epidermal and dermal Langerhans cells, predominantly CD8 positive T cells in the epidermis and dermis, sparse dermal B cells and CD4 positive T cells, reduced T regulatory cells and a complete absence of CD56 positive NK cells.

Limitations

Small sample size was the limitation of the study.

Conclusion

The clinical morphology and dermoscopy may not differentiate between various types of non-infectious non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reactions. The immunological profile supports a delayed hypersensitivity reaction due to contact sensitisation to tattoo pigment, and CD8 positive T cells play a central role in executing various pathological reaction patterns, both in the epidermis and dermis.

Keywords

Dermoscopy
pathology
reaction
tattoo

Plain Language Summary

Tattoo-associated complications are increasing due to the popularity of decorative tattoos in India. The exact cause of various tattoo-associated reactions is not well-known and their dermoscopic features are rarely reported. This study aimed to delineate patients' clinical, dermoscopic and immunopathological details with tattoo reactions that were not infectious or eczematous. The authors evaluated the aforementioned features of noninfectious noneczematous tattoo reactions in five patients with six lesions. Morphologically, the reactions presented as erythematous or blue-gray flat-topped to verrucous papules and plaques. Dermoscopy showed a central white to pink-white structureless area, a peripheral gray-white to bluish-white structureless area, white scales, comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging, milia-like cysts and shiny white structures. All but one lesion had a combination of pathological reaction patterns. Immunohistochemistry showed increased epidermal and dermal Langerhans cells, predominantly CD8 positive T cells in the epidermis and dermis, sparse dermal B cells and CD4 positive T cells, reduced T regulatory cells and a complete absence of CD56 positive natural killer cells. The authors concluded that clinical morphology and dermoscopy might not differentiate between various types of noninfectious noneczematous inflammatory tattoo reactions and CD8 T cells play a central role in executing various pathological reaction patterns, both in the epidermis and dermis.

Introduction

The popularity of decorative tattoos in recent years has led to an increase in tattoo-associated complications. The complications can be broadly divided into infectious, inflammatory, and neoplastic groups.1,2 The inflammatory group encompasses a spectrum of reaction patterns, such as eczematous, lichenoid, granulomatous, pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia and pseudolymphoma and their diagnosis solely depend upon histopathological examination.3 The dermoscopic details of various inflammatory tattoo reaction patterns are sparsely reported. In addition, the exact pathogeneses of various reaction patterns are still not clear. We aimed to retrospectively study the clinical, dermoscopic and immunopathological details of patients with non-infectious non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reaction patterns in a tertiary care centre of East India.

Methods

This retrospective study was conducted in a tertiary care hospital after approval from the institute ethics committee. All the patients who had tattoo reactions between December 2018 to December 2021 were assessed for inclusion. All the pathologically-proven non-infectious non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reactions were included in the study. Figure 1 shows details of the study methodology.

Figure 1:: Flowchart describing the study methodology

Clinical details of the patients were noted from clinical notes and pathology forms. All the clinical and dermoscopic images were retrieved from the departmental archives. Dermoscopic images were taken using DermLite, DL4 (Polarised mode, 10X magnification) dermatoscope attached to a Canon digital camera.

A detailed histological assessment of all the haematoxylin and eosin-stained skin biopsies specimens were done.

Immunohistochemistry for CD1a, CD3, CD4, CD8, FoxP3, CD 20 and CD56 were done to identify Langerhans cell, pan T cells, T-helper cells, cytotoxic cells, T-regulatory cells, B cells, and NK cells, respectively. Table 5 delineates the technical details of all the immunostains. The location of the immunopositive cells were marked (epidermal, dermal and subcutis), and the degree of infiltration was interpreted as a proportion (For CD3 and CD20- out of the total number of lymphocytes, for CD4, CD8, and foxp3- out of the total number of CD3 positive cells). CD1a positive cells were interpreted as mild, moderate or marked increase in Langerhans cells in the epidermis and dermis.

Results

A total of five patients with six lesions satisfied the inclusion and exclusion criteria, and belonged to the skin phototypes IV and V. The time from the tattooing to the onset of the reaction varied from four to ten months. Of the six lesions, five had reactions at the site of a black tattoo [Figure 2a], and one reacted to the red tattoo [Figure 3a]. Clinically [Table 1], the lesions presented with erythematous or blue-grey flat-topped to verrucous papules and plaques. The main complaint was cosmetic disfigurement followed by itching.

Figure 2a:: Verrucous plaques (arrow points to the biopsied plaque)
Figure 2b:: Dermoscopy (DermLite DL4, ×10) under polarised mode shows central white structureless area (blue arrow) and peripheral grey-white structureless area (red arrow) along with comedo-like opening and keratotic plugging (black arrow)
Figure 2c:: Histology shows pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia (H & E, ×50)
Figure 2d:: Necrobiotic reaction pattern (H & E, ×50)
Figure 2e:: Central area of necrobiosis (blue arrow) surrounded by palisaded histiocytic granulomas (red arrow) along with lymphocytes. Note the nuclear dust in the area of necrobiosis (H & E, ×100)
Figure 2f-o:: (f) Dermal CD3 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×100); (g) Few CD4 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×100); (h) Majority of the cells are CD8 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×100); (i) Reduced Foxp3 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×100); (j) Occasional CD20 positive B lymphocytes, (IHC, ×100); (k) Negative CD56 positive natural killer T cells (IHC, ×100); (l) Increased epidermal CD1a positive Langerhans cells (IHC, ×400); (m) Epidermal CD3 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×400); (n) CD8 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×400); (o) CD4 negative T lymphocytes (IHC, ×400)
Figure 3a:: Erythematous flat-topped plaque along the distribution of the red tattoo and sparing of the blue-black tattoo
Figure 3b:: Dermoscopy (DermLite DL4, ×10) under polarised mode shows pink-white structureless area, comedo-like opening and shiny white structures
Figure 3c:: Histology shows a lichenoid reaction pattern (H & E, ×50)
Figure 3d:: Sub-epidermal band-like lymphohistiocytic infiltration with occasional giant cell (H & E, ×100)
Figure 3e:: Dermal CD8 positive T lymphocytes (IHC, ×100)
Figure 3f:: Occasional CD20 positive B lymphocytes (IHC, ×100)
Figure 3g:: Reduced Foxp3 positive T lymphocytes, (IHC, ×100)
Figure 3h:: Negative CD56 positive natural killer T cells (IHC, ×100)
Table 1:: Clinical and dermoscopic details of the five patients
Age/gender Clinical morphology(tattoo colour) Dermoscopic features
Case 1 23/M Erythematous to blue-grey verrucous plaque (A)
(Black)
Diffuse white to yellowish-white scales
Central pinkish-white to bluish-white structureless area
Peripheral blue-grey structureless area
Comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging
Shiny white lines, clods and structureless area
Focal multicoloured pattern
Focal hairpin and linear vessels
Blue-grey flat-topped papules (B)
(Black)
Focal white scales
Bluish-white structureless area
Shiny-white lines, clods and structureless area
Focal hairpin vessels
Case 2 16/M Erythematous to blue-grey flat-topped to verrucous papules and plaques
(Black)
Focal white scales
Whitish to pinkish-white structureless area
Focal grey-white to bluish-white structureless area
Comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging
Milia-like cysts
Shiny white lines
Focal linear and hairpin vessels
Case 3 40/M Erythematous flat-topped plaque along the distribution of the red tattoo colour
(Red)
Diffuse white scales
Pink-white structureless area
Comedo-like opening keratotic plugging
Shiny white lines, rosette, and clod
Focal linear, and linear irregular vessels
Case 4 30/M Blue-grey flat-topped to verrucous papules and plaque
(Black)
Focal white scales
Pinkish-white, grey-white to bluish-white structureless area
Comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging
Shiny white lines and rosette
Case 5 26/M Erythematous verrucous plaque
(Black)
Diffuse white scales
Central pinkish-white structureless area
Peripheral grey-white structureless area
Comedo-like opening and follicular plugging
Milia-like cysts
Shiny white lines, clods, and rosette
Grouped dotted vessels

Dermoscopic features [Table 1] were dominated by a central white to pink-white structureless area and a peripheral grey-white to bluish-white structureless area. In addition, white scales, comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging, milia-like cysts and shiny white structures were noted in all the cases [Figures 2b and 3b]. Vascular structures mainly were focally distributed and included hairpin and linear vessels.

Pathologically [Figures 2c-e and 3c-d], except for one lesion that only showed a lichenoid reaction pattern in the red tattoo, all had a combination of reaction patterns that included lichenoid, pseudoepitheliomatous, interstitial and tuberculoid, sarcoid and necrobiotic granulomatous reactions [Table 2].

Table 2:: Pathological features of all the six lesions
Pathological features Case 1 A Case 1B Case 2 Case 3 Case 4 Case 5
Reaction pattern PEH + necrobiotic granulomatous reaction pattern Sarcoidal + necrobiotic granulomatous reaction pattern Necrobiotic + tuberculoid granulomatous reaction pattern Lichenoid reaction pattern Lichenoid + tuberculoid granulomatous reaction pattern Lichenoid + interstitial granulomatous reaction pattern
Compact hyperkeratosis + + + + + +
Parakeratosis + + + + +
Melanin in stratum corneum + + + + + +
Follicular dilatation and plugging + + + + +
Hypergranulosis + + +
Acanthosis (mild/moderate/marked) Marked with PEH Moderate Moderate Atrophy Moderate Moderate
Spongiosis (mild/moderate/severe) Mild
Exocytosis
(Mild/moderate/severe)
L
Mild
L
Mild
L
Moderate
L
Mild
L
Mild
L
Moderate to severe
Size of intraepidermal lymphocytes (small/medium/large) Small Small Small to medium Small Small Small to Medium
Basal vacuolar degeneration +
Focal
+
Focal
+ + +
Cytoid bodies +
Focal
+ + +
Pigment incontinence + + + + + +
Grenz zone
Inflammatory infiltration
(mild/moderate/marked)
Inflammatory cells (+/++/+++)
Marked
L+++/H+++/P+/E+
Marked
L++/H+++/P-/E-
Marked
L++/H++/P+/
E+
Marked
L+++/H+/E+
Marked
L+++/H+++/P-/
E-
Marked
L++/H++/P-/E+/
M+/-
Subepidermal lichenoid infiltration + +
Perivascular infiltrate + + + + + +
Perieccrine infiltrate + _ + + +
Perineural infiltrate +
Perifollicular infiltrate + + + +
Interstitial infiltrates + +
Granuloma (Tuberculoid/sarcoid/necrobiotic) Necrobiotic Necrobiotic and Sarcoidal Necrobiotic and tuberculoid Tuberculoid Interstitial
Blood vessels Dilated Dilated Dilated Dilated Dilated Dilated
Fibrosis + +
Perifollicular
+ + +
Dilated lymphatics
Subcutaneous inflammation Lobular lymphocytic infiltration + +
Depth of inflammation (up to papillary/upper reticular/lower reticular) Subcutaneous tissue Upper reticular dermis Upper reticular dermis Upper reticular dermis Subcutis Subcutis
Depth of tattoo pigment (papillary/upper reticular/lower reticular) Upper reticular dermis Upper reticular dermis Lower reticular dermis

Present (+), Absent (-), PEH: Pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia, L: Lymphocyte, H: Histiocyte, E: Eosinophil, P: Plasma cell, M: Mast cell

CD1a highlighted increased epidermal and dermal Langerhans cells. The dermal lymphocytes were predominantly of T cell lineage, with only a few cells stained for B cells. CD4 positive T cells constituted only a minor subset, and CD8 positive T cells were the dominant cell type of the dermal T-cells. In addition, there was a reduction in Foxp3 positive T regulatory cells and a complete absence of CD56 positive NK cells [Table 3]. A similar pattern of immunostaining for lymphocytes was noticed for the epidermal lymphocytes [Figures 2f-o and 3e-h].

Table 3:: Immunohistochemical details of all the cases
IHC Case 1A Case 1B Case 2 Case 3 Case 4 Case 5
CD1a
(Increase -mild/moderate/marked)
Epidermis- Moderate
Dermis- Mild
Epidermis- Moderate
Dermis- Mild
Epidermis- Moderate
Dermis-Moderate
Epidermis- Mild to Moderate
Dermis- Mild
Epidermis- Moderate
Dermis- Moderate
Epidermis- Marked
Dermis- Mild
CD3 95-99% 95-99% 90-95% 90-95% 95-99% 85-90%
CD4 20-25% 15-20% 1-5% 35-40% 20-25% 20-25%
CD8 70-75% 85-90% 90-95% 60-65% 70-75% 75-80%
CD20 1-5% 1-5% 1-5% 1-2% 1-5% 10-15%
FoxP3 5-9% 5-10% 5-10% 10-15% 1-5% 5-10%
CD56 Negative Negative Negative Negative Negative Negative

Discussion

Inflammatory tattoo reaction patterns can have heterogeneous non-specific clinical manifestations, and it is not easy to differentiate between them solely based upon the clinical morphology, as demonstrated in this study.4 The only exception was the lichenoid reaction pattern that presented with erythematous flat-topped plaque over the red tattoo without a verrucous surface, as reported before.2

There are only a few case reports on dermoscopic features of tattoo reactions. In the present series, the common dermoscopic features observed, irrespective of their tattoo reaction patterns, were a central pink-white structureless area, a peripheral grey-white to bluish-white structureless area, white scales, comedo-like opening with keratotic plugging, and shiny white structures. Shiny white structures were rosette, shiny white lines, clods, and structureless areas. The central pink-white structureless area corresponds to the acanthotic epidermis with increased vascularity, and the peripheral bluish-white to grey-white structureless area to the acanthotic epidermis and dermal black tattoo pigment. The blue-white to grey-white structureless area and Wickham’s striae were absent in the lichenoid tattoo reaction.

In contrast to the previously reported orange to yellowish-orange structureless area in granulomatous tattoo reaction and sarcoid foreign body reaction,5 we observed a white to pinkish-white structureless area; This may be due to the overlying epidermal hyperplasia masking the mass effect of the dermal granuloma or may be due to lack of compact or conglomerate granulomas needed to produce the mass effect (yellow colour). A prior case of tattoo pseudolymphoma demonstrated a homogenous violaceous pattern with a follicular white-yellow halo.6 Pohl et al. advocated for dermoscopic examination of all the tattoos before laser removal to look for any pigmented lesions and, if present, tattoos not to be treated with laser.7

The histopathological spectrum of non-infectious non-eczematous tattoo reaction patterns can be broad and include the following: lichenoid, psoriasiform, pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia, granulomatous, keratoacanthoma-like, cutaneous lupus erythematosus-like and pseudolymphomatous.8-10 In this series, all but one tattoo reaction had more than one type of pathological reaction patterns. Lymphocytes and histiocytes were the dominant inflammatory cells in the dermis, while epidermal exocytosis demonstrated only lymphocytes. None of them showed eosinophilic or plasma cell infiltration except for one lesion. A recent study reported a combination of interface dermatitis and histiocytic hypersensitivity reactions in red tattoo-associated reactions.9 In our study, a similar pattern was observed, but all secondary to black tattoos.

Non-infectious granulomatous tattoo reaction patterns can be tuberculoid, sarcoidal and necrobiotic. It is mandatory to do a culture and, or special stain for acid-fast bacilli to rule out tuberculosis and leprosy, two major public health problems in India. Sarcoidal granulomatous pattern needs special mention, as it can be a part of systemic sarcoidosis or simple sarcoidal type foreign body granulomatous tattoo reaction pattern. The clinical morphology, even the dermoscopy, may not be able to distinguish between the two. So, it is binding to rule out systemic involvement.2,11,12 The only case in this series did not have any features of systemic sarcoidosis. Necrobiotic tattoo granuloma is an exceptionally rare type of tattoo reaction pattern. Both granuloma annulare-like and necrobiosis lipoidica-like necrobiotic tattoo reaction patterns have been described.13,14 All three cases in this study showed palisading necrobiotic granulomas.13 Table 4 depicts the clinical morphology and associated reaction patterns linked to different tattoo colours.15

Table 4:: The clinical and pathological reaction patterns described in different tattoo colours
Colour of tattoo Cutaneous manifestation Histopathological pattern
Black ● Hyperpigmented plaque with or without erosions
● Lichenoid plaque
● Discrete hyperpigmented papule
● Eczematized plaque
● Erythematous plaque
● Crusted lesion over an erythematous base
● Allergic
● Lichenoid
● Granulomatous
Red ● Erythematous plaque
● Hyperpigmented plaque with or without crusting
● Allergic
● Lichenoid
Green ● Hyperpigmented plaque with or without erosions
● Pruritic eczematized plaque
● Allergic
● Granulomatous
Table 5:: Technical details of all the immunohistochemical stains used in the study
Immunostains Sites of positivity Highlighted cells Dilution Clone Company
CD1a Membranous Langerhans cell Ready-to-use Biocare, California, USA
CD3 Membranous Pan T cell 1:100 Rabbit
polyclonal
PathnSitu, Livermore, CA, USA
CD4 Membranous T-helper cell Ready-to-use 4B12 Dako, Carpinteria, CA, USA
CD8 Membranous Cytotoxic T cell Ready-to-use C8/144B Dako, Carpinteria, CA, USA
FoxP3 Nuclear T-regulatory cell 1:400 236A/E7 Abcam, Cambridge, MA, USA
CD20 Membranous B cell 1:100 L26 PathnSitu, Livermore, CA, USA
CD56 Membranous NK cells Ready-to-use 123C3 Dako, Carpinteria, CA, USA

The use of the patch test in tattoo reactions is not helpful. A study on patch test in patients with tattoo reactions showed that patients with clinically significant reactions in their tattoos presented mainly negative or inconsistent results when patch tested with common allergens, textile dyes, problematic tattoo ink stock products and even with their individual culprit inks when available for testing.16

The exact aetiopathology of different types of non-infectious non-eczematous inflammatory tattoo reaction patterns are unknown. A tattoo ink-associated hypersensitivity reaction has been postulated to cause these delayed types of reaction patterns.6

In our study, the immunohistochemistry revealed a cytological profile similar to a delayed-type of hypersensitivity in all the cases, irrespective of the tattoo’s colour or pathological reaction patterns. In all the cases, T cells were the predominant lymphocytes, and B cells were sparse. The epidermal T lymphocytes were mostly CD8 positive T cells and responsible for the interface dermatitis and epidermal reaction. The dermal T lymphocytes were predominantly CD8 positive T cells and acted as the effector cell in orchestrating the delayed types of reaction patterns. In addition, increased epidermal and dermal Langerhans cells, and dermal sparse CD4 positive cells, and Foxp3 T-regulatory cells, as demonstrated, support the same concept. As described before, CD20 positive B-cells and CD56 positive NK T-cells do not appear to have any significant role in the tattoo reactions.4

The limitations of our study were the small sample size and the absence of other variants of inflammatory tattoo reaction patterns.

In conclusion, the clinical morphology and dermoscopy did not help differentiate between various types of reaction patterns. A combination of pathological reaction patterns is commonly observed in histopathology. The immunological profile supports a delayed hypersensitivity reaction due to contact sensitisation to tattoo pigment, and CD8 T cells play a central role in executing various pathological reaction patterns. Future studies with large sample sizes and comparison groups may shed light on the role of dermoscopy in detecting and differentiating between various non-infectious tattoo reactions.

Declaration of patient consent

The authors certify that they have obtained all appropriate patient consent.

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflict of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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