Laptop heat can cause skin condition, study finds

Oct. 13, 2010, 2:03 a.m.

That IHUM paper might have done some damage to your skin in addition to your sleep cycle. According to a recently published article in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, chronic exposure to the heat source on the underside of a laptop computer can cause an unsightly rash dubbed “laptop skin” or, officially, laptop-induced “erythema ab igne,” a web-like, pinkish-brownish lesion.

Latin for “redness from fire” and also known as “toasted skin syndrome,” erythema ab igne can result from prolonged skin contact with any significant heat source. Historically, the elderly have been primarily affected with proximity to fires and other heating elements, such as electric blankets. Only in the last decade have laptops been identified as an agent.

Laptop heat can cause skin condition, study finds
ANASTASIA YEE/The Stanford Daily

When laptops are the culprit, however, the condition is not severe enough to present any serious health risks, according to several dermatologists at the Stanford Medical Center.

“The concern is mainly aesthetic,” said Jean Tang, assistant professor of dermatology, “though some slight discomfort can be involved. This type of laptop burn is not even a first-degree burn.”

Indeed, this “burn” is actually a reddening of the skin caused by the dilating of capillaries.

“The infrared [radiation from the heat] causes a reticular pattern of hyper-pigmentation due to the swelling of surrounding cells,” said David Peng, clinical associate professor of dermatology. He concurred that the risks associated were mainly aesthetic.

Though this is indeed the case for “laptop skin,” other types of ertythema ab igne have potentially graver long-term health consequences. Just as prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation mutates skin cells and causes melanoma, exposure to severe infrared radiation can cause squamous skin-cell cancer, which was common in ancient China and Tibet, when people slept close to heated-brick platforms called “kangs,” the study said.

As to the possibility of developing squamous cell cancer from laptop exposure, Peng calls it “extremely unlikely.” He added, “It’s very hard to examine the connection between the exposure to the heat source and the development of the cancer, due to extremely long latency time.”

As for treatment, both Tang and Peng agree that simply stopping exposure to the laptop will cause the lesion to fade completely in a matter of weeks, though Tang added that scarring is theoretically possible and is often more visible in those with darker skin tones. No active treatments exist, though Tang suggested taking aspirin to alleviate symptoms.

The heat behind the damage all originates from three potential sources on the laptop: the optical drive, the battery and the ventilation fan, all of which are usually located on the left side of the computer. Consequently, all reported cases of laptop skin have occurred on the left thigh only, and this asymmetry is characteristic of the diagnosis.

Professors at the medical school and clinicians at Vaden Health Center say they have encountered “very few” cases of laptop-induced erythema ab igne in Stanford students and in general patients, though this lack of cases is not necessarily due to a low prevalence of the condition.

Several students interviewed for this article agreed that prevention of this condition is a matter of common sense — simply stop putting the laptop on your lap, they said.

“Generally when something is burning your legs or crotch, you should remove whatever is causing that sensation,” said Matt Anderson ’14.

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