Diseases, Disorders, and Injuries of the Integumentary System

Identify different diseases, disorders, and injuries of the integumentary system

The integumentary system is susceptible to a variety of diseases, disorders, and injuries. These range from annoying but relatively benign bacterial or fungal infections that are categorized as disorders, to skin cancer and severe burns, which can be fatal. In this section, you will learn several of the most common skin conditions.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe different diseases of the skin
  • Describe several different disorders of the skin
  • Describe the effect of injury to the skin
  • Explain the process of wound healing

Diseases of Skin

One of the most talked about diseases is skin cancer. Cancer is a broad term that describes diseases caused by abnormal cells in the body dividing uncontrollably. Most cancers are identified by the organ or tissue in which the cancer originates. One common form of cancer is skin cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that one in five Americans will experience some type of skin cancer in their lifetime. The degradation of the ozone layer in the atmosphere and the resulting increase in exposure to UV radiation has contributed to its rise. Overexposure to UV radiation damages DNA, which can lead to the formation of cancerous lesions. Although melanin offers some protection against DNA damage from the sun, often it is not enough. The fact that cancers can also occur on areas of the body that are normally not exposed to UV radiation suggests that there are additional factors that can lead to cancerous lesions.

In general, cancers result from an accumulation of DNA mutations. These mutations can result in cell populations that do not die when they should and uncontrolled cell proliferation that leads to tumors. Although many tumors are benign (harmless), some produce cells that can mobilize and establish tumors in other organs of the body; this process is referred to as metastasis. Cancers are characterized by their ability to metastasize.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

This photo shows an enlarged view of a basal cell carcinoma, a large, pink, irregular bump on the skin. The carcinoma is marked with irregular, dark-red stripes that resemble tiny blood vessels. The surrounding skin is the same pink color as the carcinoma, but without the red striping or raised appearance

Figure 1. Basal cell carcinoma can take several different forms. Similar to other forms of skin cancer, it is readily cured if caught early and treated. (credit: John Hendrix, MD)

Basal cell carcinoma is a form of cancer that affects the mitotically active stem cells in the stratum basale of the epidermis. It is the most common of all cancers that occur in the United States and is frequently found on the head, neck, arms, and back, which are areas that are most susceptible to long-term sun exposure. Although UV rays are the main culprit, exposure to other agents, such as radiation and arsenic, can also lead to this type of cancer. Wounds on the skin due to open sores, tattoos, burns, etc. may be predisposing factors as well. Basal cell carcinomas start in the stratum basale and usually spread along this boundary. At some point, they begin to grow toward the surface and become an uneven patch, bump, growth, or scar on the skin surface (Figure 1). Like most cancers, basal cell carcinomas respond best to treatment when caught early. Treatment options include surgery, freezing (cryosurgery), and topical ointments (Mayo Clinic 2012).

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This photo shows a man’s nose. The squamous cell carcinoma is located just above the tip of the nose and appears as a deep red, irregularly-shaped sore that spans almost the entire bridge of his nose.

Figure 2. Squamous cell carcinoma presents here as a lesion on an individual’s nose. (credit: the National Cancer Institute)

Squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer that affects the keratinocytes of the stratum spinosum and presents as lesions commonly found on the scalp, ears, and hands (Figure 2). It is the second most common skin cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that two of 10 skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, and it is more aggressive than basal cell carcinoma. If not removed, these carcinomas can metastasize. Surgery and radiation are used to cure squamous cell carcinoma.


A melanoma is a cancer characterized by the uncontrolled growth of melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells in the epidermis. Typically, a melanoma develops from a mole. It is the most fatal of all skin cancers, as it is highly metastatic and can be difficult to detect before it has spread to other organs. Melanomas usually appear as asymmetrical brown and black patches with uneven borders and a raised surface (Figure 3). Treatment typically involves surgical excision and immunotherapy.

This photo shows a patch of fair skin containing a large melanoma. The melanoma is black and splotchy in appearance.

Figure 3. Melanomas typically present as large brown or black patches with uneven borders and a raised surface. (credit: the National Cancer Institute)

Doctors often give their patients the following ABCDE mnemonic to help with the diagnosis of early-stage melanoma. If you observe a mole on your body displaying these signs, consult a doctor.

  • Asymmetry – the two sides are not symmetrical
  • Borders – the edges are irregular in shape
  • Color – the color is varied shades of brown or black
  • Diameter – it is larger than 6 mm (0.24 in)
  • Evolving – its shape has changed

Some specialists cite the following additional signs for the most serious form, nodular melanoma:

  • Elevated – it is raised on the skin surface
  • Firm – it feels hard to the touch
  • Growing – it is getting larger

Practice Questions

In general, skin cancers ________.

  1. are easily treatable and not a major health concern
  2. can be reduced by limiting exposure to the sun
  3. occur due to poor hygiene
  4. affect only the epidermis

Squamous cell carcinomas are the second most common of the skin cancers and are capable of metastasizing if not treated. This cancer affects which cells?

  1. basal cells of the stratum basale
  2. melanocytes of the stratum basale
  3. keratinocytes of the stratum spinosum
  4. Langerhans cells of the stratum lucidum

Disorders of Skin

Two common skin disorders are eczema and acne. Eczema is an inflammatory condition and occurs in individuals of all ages. Acne involves the clogging of pores, which can lead to infection and inflammation, and is often seen in adolescents. Other disorders, not discussed here, include seborrheic dermatitis (on the scalp), psoriasis, cold sores, impetigo, scabies, hives, and warts.


This photo shows a person with eczema on the ventral skin of the forearms. The person is a Caucasian, but his or her white skin is mottled with many red marks, giving it the appearance of a rash. In some areas, the skin is breaking and peeling.

Figure 4. Eczema is a common skin disorder that presents as a red, flaky rash. (credit: “Jambula”/Wikimedia Commons)

Eczema is an allergic reaction that manifests as dry, itchy patches of skin that resemble rashes (Figure 4). It may be accompanied by swelling of the skin, flaking, and in severe cases, bleeding. Many who suffer from eczema have antibodies against dust mites in their blood, but the link between eczema and allergy to dust mites has not been proven. Symptoms are usually managed with moisturizers, corticosteroid creams, and immunosuppressants.


Acne is a skin disturbance that typically occurs on areas of the skin that are rich in sebaceous glands (face and back). It is most common along with the onset of puberty due to associated hormonal changes, but can also occur in infants and continue into adulthood. Hormones, such as androgens, stimulate the release of sebum. An overproduction and accumulation of sebum along with keratin can block hair follicles. This plug is initially white. The sebum, when oxidized by exposure to air, turns black. Acne results from infection by acne-causing bacteria (Propionibacterium and Staphylococcus), which can lead to redness and potential scarring due to the natural wound healing process (Figure 5).

Three diagrams show the progression of acne in three steps from left to right. All three depict a cross section of skin containing a hair follicle. In the left diagram, the follicle has a swollen area about halfway up the hair shaft, just above a sebaceous gland. The follicle is plugged with sebum, depicted as a yellowish substance. In the middle diagram, the follicle has become more swollen, as a label indicates that bacteria are reproducing within the blockage. The surrounding epidermis becomes inflamed as a result of the bacterial infection. In the rightmost image, the blockage has swollen to about five times its original size and has broken the surrounding epidermis, which is now red and inflamed.

Figure 5. Acne is a result of over-productive sebaceous glands, which leads to formation of blackheads and inflammation of the skin.

Practice Question

Why do teenagers often experience acne?

Injuries of Skin

Because the skin is the part of our bodies that meets the world most directly, it is especially vulnerable to injury. Injuries include burns and wounds, as well as scars and calluses. They can be caused by sharp objects, heat, or excessive pressure or friction to the skin.

Skin injuries set off a healing process that occurs in several overlapping stages. The first step to repairing damaged skin is the formation of a blood clot that helps stop the flow of blood and scabs over with time. Many different types of cells are involved in wound repair, especially if the surface area that needs repair is extensive. Before the basal stem cells of the stratum basale can recreate the epidermis, fibroblasts mobilize and divide rapidly to repair the damaged tissue by collagen deposition, forming granulation tissue. Blood capillaries follow the fibroblasts and help increase blood circulation and oxygen supply to the area. Immune cells, such as macrophages, roam the area and engulf any foreign matter to reduce the chance of infection.


A burn results when the skin is damaged by intense heat, radiation, electricity, or chemicals. The damage results in the death of skin cells, which can lead to a massive loss of fluid. Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and renal and circulatory failure follow, which can be fatal. Burn patients are treated with intravenous fluids to offset dehydration, as well as intravenous nutrients that enable the body to repair tissues and replace lost proteins. Another serious threat to the lives of burn patients is infection. Burned skin is extremely susceptible to bacteria and other pathogens, due to the loss of protection by intact layers of skin.

Burns are sometimes measured in terms of the size of the total surface area affected. This is referred to as the “rule of nines,” which associates specific anatomical areas with a percentage that is a factor of nine (Figure 6).

This diagram depicts the percentage of the total body area burned when a victim suffers complete burns to regions of the body. Complete burning of the face, head and neck account for 19% of the total body area. Burning of the chest, abdomen and entire back above the waist accounts for 36% of the total body area. Anterior and posterior surfaces of the arms and hands account for 18% of the total body area (9% for each arm). The anterior and posterior surface of both legs, along with the buttocks, accounts for 36% of the total body area (18% for each leg). Finally, the anterior and posterior surfaces of the genitalia account for 1% of the total body area.

Figure 6. The size of a burn will guide decisions made about the need for specialized treatment. Specific parts of the body are associated with a percentage of body area.

Burns are also classified by the degree of their severity:

  • A first-degree burn is a superficial burn that affects only the epidermis. Although the skin may be painful and swollen, these burns typically heal on their own within a few days. Mild sunburn fits into the category of a first-degree burn.
  • A second-degree burn goes deeper and affects both the epidermis and a portion of the dermis. These burns result in swelling and a painful blistering of the skin. It is important to keep the burn site clean and sterile to prevent infection. If this is done, the burn will heal within several weeks.
  • A third-degree burn fully extends into the epidermis and dermis, destroying the tissue and affecting the nerve endings and sensory function. These are serious burns that may appear white, red, or black; they require medical attention and will heal slowly without it.
  • A fourth-degree burn is even more severe, affecting the underlying muscle and bone.

Oddly, third and fourth-degree burns are usually not as painful because the nerve endings themselves are damaged. Full-thickness burns cannot be repaired by the body, because the local tissues used for repair are damaged and require excision (debridement), or amputation in severe cases, followed by grafting of the skin from an unaffected part of the body, or from skin grown in tissue culture for grafting purposes.

Skin grafts are required when the damage from trauma or infection cannot be closed with sutures or staples. Watch this video to learn more about skin grafting procedures.

Scars and Keloids

Most cuts or wounds, with the exception of ones that only scratch the surface (the epidermis), lead to scar formation. A scar is collagen-rich skin formed after the process of wound healing that differs from normal skin. Scarring occurs in cases in which there is repair of skin damage, but the skin fails to regenerate the original skin structure. Fibroblasts generate scar tissue in the form of collagen, and the bulk of repair is due to the basket-weave pattern generated by collagen fibers and does not result in regeneration of the typical cellular structure of skin. Instead, the tissue is fibrous in nature and does not allow for the regeneration of accessory structures, such as hair follicles, sweat glands, or sebaceous glands.

Sometimes, there is an overproduction of scar tissue, because the process of collagen formation does not stop when the wound is healed; this results in the formation of a raised or hypertrophic scar called a keloid. In contrast, scars that result from acne and chickenpox have a sunken appearance and are called atrophic scars.

Scarring of skin after wound healing is a natural process and does not need to be treated further. Application of mineral oil and lotions may reduce the formation of scar tissue. However, modern cosmetic procedures, such as dermabrasion, laser treatments, and filler injections have been invented as remedies for severe scarring. All of these procedures try to reorganize the structure of the epidermis and underlying collagen tissue to make it look more natural.

Practice Question

Why do scars look different from surrounding skin?

Bedsores and Stretch Marks

Skin and its underlying tissue can be affected by excessive pressure. One example of this is called a bedsore. Bedsores, also called decubitis ulcers, are caused by constant, long-term, unrelieved pressure on certain body parts that are bony, reducing blood flow to the area and leading to necrosis (tissue death). Bedsores are most common in elderly patients who have debilitating conditions that cause them to be immobile. Most hospitals and long-term care facilities have the practice of turning the patients every few hours to prevent the incidence of bedsores. If left untreated by removal of necrotized tissue, bedsores can be fatal if they become infected.

The skin can also be affected by pressure associated with rapid growth. A stretch mark results when the dermis is stretched beyond its limits of elasticity, as the skin stretches to accommodate the excess pressure. Stretch marks usually accompany rapid weight gain during puberty and pregnancy. They initially have a reddish hue, but lighten over time. Other than for cosmetic reasons, treatment of stretch marks is not required. They occur most commonly over the hips and abdomen.


When you wear shoes that do not fit well and are a constant source of abrasion on your toes, you tend to form a callus at the point of contact. This occurs because the basal stem cells in the stratum basale are triggered to divide more often to increase the thickness of the skin at the point of abrasion to protect the rest of the body from further damage. This is an example of a minor or local injury, and the skin manages to react and treat the problem independent of the rest of the body. Calluses can also form on your fingers if they are subject to constant mechanical stress, such as long periods of writing, playing string instruments, or video games. A corn is a specialized form of callus. Corns form from abrasions on the skin that result from an elliptical-type motion.

Wound Healing

Inflammation is the standard, initial response of the body to injury. Whether biological, chemical, physical, or radiation burns, all injuries lead to the same sequence of physiological events. Inflammation limits the extent of injury, partially or fully eliminates the cause of injury, and initiates repair and regeneration of damaged tissue. Necrosis, or accidental cell death, causes inflammation. Apoptosis is programmed cell death, a normal step-by-step process that destroys cells no longer needed by the body. By mechanisms still under investigation, apoptosis does not initiate the inflammatory response. Acute inflammation resolves over time by the healing of tissue. If inflammation persists, it becomes chronic and leads to diseased conditions. Arthritis and tuberculosis are examples of chronic inflammation. The suffix –itis denotes inflammation of a specific organ or type, for example, peritonitis is the inflammation of the peritoneum, and meningitis refers to the inflammation of the meninges, the tough membranes that surround the central nervous system

The four cardinal signs of inflammation—redness, swelling, pain, and local heat—were first recorded in antiquity. Cornelius Celsus is credited with documenting these signs during the days of the Roman Empire, as early as the first century AD. A fifth sign, loss of function, may also accompany inflammation.

Upon tissue injury, damaged cells release inflammatory chemical signals that evoke local vasodilation, the widening of the blood vessels. Increased blood flow results in apparent redness and heat. In response to injury, mast cells present in tissue degranulate, releasing the potent vasodilator histamine. Increased blood flow and inflammatory mediators recruit white blood cells to the site of inflammation. The endothelium lining the local blood vessel becomes “leaky” under the influence of histamine and other inflammatory mediators allowing neutrophils, macrophages, and fluid to move from the blood into the interstitial tissue spaces. The excess liquid in tissue causes swelling, more properly called edema. The swollen tissues squeezing pain receptors cause the sensation of pain. Prostaglandins released from injured cells also activate pain neurons. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce pain because they inhibit the synthesis of prostaglandins. High levels of NSAIDs reduce inflammation. Antihistamines decrease allergies by blocking histamine receptors and as a result the histamine response.

After containment of an injury, the tissue repair phase starts with removal of toxins and waste products. Clotting (coagulation) reduces blood loss from damaged blood vessels and forms a network of fibrin proteins that trap blood cells and bind the edges of the wound together. A scab forms when the clot dries, reducing the risk of infection. Sometimes a mixture of dead leukocytes and fluid called pus accumulates in the wound. As healing progresses, fibroblasts from the surrounding connective tissues replace the collagen and extracellular material lost by the injury. Angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels, results in vascularization of the new tissue known as granulation tissue. The clot retracts pulling the edges of the wound together, and it slowly dissolves as the tissue is repaired. When a large amount of granulation tissue forms and capillaries disappear, a pale scar is often visible in the healed area. A primary union describes the healing of a wound where the edges are close together. When there is a gaping wound, it takes longer to refill the area with cells and collagen. The process called secondary union occurs as the edges of the wound are pulled together by what is called wound contraction. When a wound is more than one quarter of an inch deep, sutures (stitches) are recommended to promote a primary union and avoid the formation of a disfiguring scar. Regeneration is the addition of new cells of the same type as the ones that were injured (Figure 7).

This diagram shows the wound healing process in three steps. Each step shows a cross section of wounded skin. The wound extends through the upper layer of skin, labeled the epidermis, about halfway through the dermis, the lower deeper layer of skin. At the base of the cross section, an artery runs horizontally through fatty tissue below the dermis. Several small capillaries branch from the artery and travel into the upper regions of the dermis. In the first step of healing, inflammatory chemicals, symbolized with green dots, are released from the injury site. The chemicals travel through the dermis and enter the horizontal artery. Clotting proteins and plasma proteins also initiate clotting within the wound, forming a scab, which is clearly visible in the second step as a black and brown mass covering the upper regions of the wound. Below the scab, epithelial cells in the epidermis multiply and begin to fill in the wound. In the dermis, three fibrocytes are binding the wound area with white tissue. This tissue is granulation tissue. Laying down granulation tissue restores the vascular supply, as indicated by capillaries growing around the wounded area. In the third step, the scab is gone and the epidermis has grown in and contracted to seal the upper portion of the wound. In the deeper regions, the wound is now completely filled with granulation tissue with is now considered scar tissue.

Figure 7. During wound repair, collagen fibers are laid down randomly by fibroblasts that move into repair the area.

Inflammation is the classic response of the body to injury and follows a common sequence of events. The area is red, feels warm to the touch, swells, and is painful. Injured cells, mast cells, and resident macrophages release chemical signals that cause vasodilation and fluid leakage in the surrounding tissue. The repair phase includes blood clotting, followed by regeneration of tissue as fibroblasts deposit collagen. Some tissues regenerate more readily than others. Epithelial and connective tissues replace damaged or dead cells from a supply of adult stem cells. Muscle and nervous tissues undergo either slow regeneration or do not repair at all.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.