Peau d'orange is a french term that literally means "the skin of an orange." It is often used in medical circles to describe skin that has become thick and pitted, just like that of an orange. There are many reasons why a person may develop peau d'orange. Some of the most common are inflammatory breast cancer, Grave's disease and Grönblad–Strandberg syndrome, which is also known as pseudoxanthoma elasticum or PXE.
For a person suffering from breast cancer, peau d'orange is often a late sign of the disease. The skin of the breast will thicken and pit slowly, usually with noticeable lumps and pain. This condition happens during breast cancer because the breast has swollen to the point where the hair follicles resemble dimples. The swelling is caused by lymphatic endema, water build up in the lymphoid tissue of the breast. Peau d'orange can occur in the breast and not be a sign of breast cancer. Grave's disease, which creates an overactive thyroid and an infection of the lymphatic system, can create similar symptoms.
Peau d'orange is also a symptom of pseudoxanthoma elasticum. This is a rare genetic disease characterized by the calcification and fragmentation of the elastic fibers of the skin, cardiovascular system and the retina. Sufferers of PXE see their skin begin to sag, much like a chicken neck. When their skin sags, the peau d'orange becomes apparent, and it turns rough and pitted. The condition first manifests itself on the neck and can spread to areas of the face. As the condition progresses the skin of the neck, as well as the groin, the skin will become soft and wrinkled, while maintaining its pitted appearance.
In addition to the skin problems, people with the condition also experience angioid streaks of the retina. These reddish/brown bands of color come from the calcification of Bruch's membrane in the retina. While the skin condition associated with PXE is relatively harmless aside from the cosmetic issues, angioid streaks can hemorrhage. These hemorrhages typically cause permanent loss of central vision, although the peripheral vision is never affected by the hemorrhages.
While peau d'orange may be the symptom of a more serious condition, it alone is not dangerous or harmful. Although the condition may cause discomfort or embarrassment it is not life-threatening on its own. Many times sufferers of PXE or other conditions that may cause peau d'orange may seek plastic surgery to help remove sagging skin, bumps and other aspects of the condition.