What is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a skin disorder that causes patchy skin. It’s an autoimmune disorder, which means it develops as the result of immune system problems. The immune system normally attacks invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, and kills unhealthy cells inside the body. In people with an autoimmune disorder, however, the immune system attacks healthy body cells. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly attacks skin cells.
More specifically, vitiligo causes the immune system to attack melanocytes, which are the cells that produce pigment in the skin. Damaged melanocytes cause the affected area of skin to lose its color and appear lighter in color or even completely white. Vitiligo typically affects the skin on the face, arms, hands, feet, and genitals.
The most common locations for patches, also known as macules, are the face, arms, hands, feet and genitals. It may be difficult to recognize this depigmentation in a light-skinned individual, but in those with darker skin, the contrast can be quite noticeable.
While vitiligo is not a life-threatening condition, it can significantly reduce quality of life for people who have it. The skin disorder vitiligo can be a major source of embarrassment, especially for those with:
- Vitiligo on face
- Vitiligo on lips
- Vitiligo on legs
- Vitiligo on other exposed parts of the body
There are several types of vitiligo, and each causes different effects. The types of vitiligo disease include:
- Generalized – the most common type; causes patches in anywhere on the body
- Segmental – restricted to one area of the body, such as the face or hands; segmental vitiligo can affect just one side of the body
- Mucosal – affects the mucous membranes of the mouth and/or the genitals
- Focal – a rare type in which macules remain in a small areas
- Trichome – patches feature colorless or white center, surrounded by an area of lighter pigmentation, and then an area of normally colored skin.
- Universal – a rare type in which more than 80 percent of the skin on a person’s body lacks pigment
Vitiligo is more noticeable in people with darker skin. This is because of the contrast between the light-colored vitiligo spots and the dark skin. Vitiligo skin symptoms include:
Patchy loss of skin color
Premature whitening or graying of the hair on your eyelashes, eyebrows, scalp, or beard
Loss of color in the mucous membrane tissues that line the inside of your nose and mouth
Vitiligo is often the result of an immune system disorder. In some cases, stress, severe sunburn, contact with a chemical or other trauma can trigger vitiligo.
Practicing strict sun protection measures, such as avoiding sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm, is essential for anyone with vitiligo. Since the function of melanocytes and pigment is to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, the lack of pigmentation in someone with vitiligo increases their risk for sunburn, sun damage, and the development of skin cancer later in life. Staying out of the sun can also help stop new patches from developing.
How does vitiligo start?
Early signs of vitiligo usually include a small patch of skin that gradually turns completely white. If there are blood vessels sitting just beneath the surface of the skin, the patches may appear pink. The edges of the patches may be smooth or irregular. These patches usually appear first on the hands, forearms, face, and feet. The patches can spread and widen, but they typically stay in the same place for years. The location of small patches of vitiligo skin can shift and changes as various areas of skin lose and regain their pigment.
Is vitiligo genetic?
The skin condition vitiligo does have a strong genetic component, which means people how have one or both parents with the condition are more likely to develop it themselves.
How to Prevent Vitiligo
While there is no way to prevent vitiligo, it is possible to reduce the visible contrast between healthy skin and macules.
Researchers are still working to develop a vitiligo cure, but skin doctors have already developed several treatments to ease the signs and symptoms of vitiligo skin disease.
While it may be difficult to restore pigment to the affected area, skin doctors can provide a number of treatments to lessen the effects of vitiligo. Oral and topical anti-inflammatory medications can target the immune cells that are destroying melanocytes, for example. UVB light therapy and Excimer laser can be effective in re-pigmenting skin too. In many cases, a combination approach provides the greatest chance of success. In rare cases in which vitiligo affects a very large area of the body, completely removing pigmentation from the skin with a topical lightening agent may be the treatment of choice; this is especially true for treating large areas of vitiligo on white skin.
Schedule a consult with one of our dermatologists to find out more about treatment options that are right for you. While there is currently no cure for vitiligo skin disease, treatment can lessen the visible appearance of white patches and macules from nearly anywhere on the body.
To connect with others who have vitiligo, visit the American Vitiligo Foundation website.