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Vitiligo: Everything You Need to Know

Vitiligo is a relatively common autoimmune disorder that causes pale or white discoloration of the skin due to the loss of functioning melanocytes. Read on to learn everything you need to know about this skin condition, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder that can cause a loss of skin pigmentation. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. The condition is relatively common.

People with vitiligo may have pale or white skin discoloration. Like other autoimmune disorders, vitiligo happens when your immune system attacks your body’s healthy cells. According to one theory, the immune system attacks the melanocytes, which are the cells that produce the pigment that gives your skin its color. When the melanocytes stop producing this pigment, the skin becomes pale or white. 

Worldwide, vitiligo is reported to affect between 0.5 and 1 percent of people.

Types of vitiligo

There are two main types of vitiligo. Non-segmental vitiligo, also called generalized vitiligo, is the most common type. Segmental vitiligo, also called localized vitiligo, is less common. There are also rare subtypes of vitiligo, including universal vitiligo. 

Non-segmental vitiligo, which affects 9 out of 10 people with vitiligo, results in patches of depigmented skin on various parts of the body. A less common variant, segmental vitiligo, results in depigmented patches on only one part of the body, such as the face. In rare cases, vitiligo skin affects the entire body; this is known as universal vitiligo.

Symptoms of vitiligo

People with vitiligo have pale, white patches on their skin. Sometimes, other parts of the body can lose pigment, including the hair and mucous membranes. Over time, the condition tends to get worse.

Vitiligo can develop on any part of the body, but often, the white patches form on the hands, face, or neck. Some other commonly affected areas include skin folds like the armpits and groin. These patches aren’t usually uncomfortable, but some people find they’re itchy. 

People with vitiligo have pale, white patches on their skin. Sometimes, other parts of the body can lose pigment, including the hair and mucous membranes.

Other tissues can lose pigment, too. Hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes, can turn white. Mucous membranes, like those that line the genitals or the inside of the mouth, can also lose pigment. 

Vitiligo is generally a progressive condition, meaning it tends to get worse over time. Once the white patches appear, they usually spread. Eventually, most of the skin loses its pigment.

Risk factors

Many factors can increase a person’s risk of developing vitiligo, including other health conditions, family history, and genetic variations. Skin color isn’t a risk factor. 

People with other autoimmune conditions, such as autoimmune thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type-1 diabetes, and vitamin D deficiency, may have a greater risk of developing vitiligo. As many as 25 percent of people with vitiligo have another autoimmune disorder. A family history of vitiligo or other autoimmune disorders can also be risk factors. Researchers have identified over 30 gene variations that may affect the risk of vitiligo. 

While the white patches associated with this condition can be more noticeable if you have darker skin, skin color isn’t a risk factor for vitiligo. All ethnic groups are affected by vitiligo at similar rates. 

Causes of vitiligo

What causes vitiligo? Vitiligo occurs when a person’s immune system attacks the melanocytes in the skin. However, it’s not clear why this happens. Environmental triggers may play a role. 

While vitiligo is known to be an autoimmune disorder, doctors aren’t sure what triggers the immune system’s attack on the melanocytes. Exposure to chemicals, damage to the skin, and stressful situations have been suggested as possible triggers. 

Ways to treat vitiligo

There’s no cure for vitiligo, but many treatments can help restore lost skin pigment or improve the appearance of the white patches. Doctors may recommend home remedies, medication, or surgery.

Home remedies may be the first line of treatment for vitiligo. Doctors may recommend applying self-tanning products to the white patches to even out the skin’s color. Cosmetic camouflage is another possible way to cover up vitiligo skin. Avoid using tanning beds, since this won’t help color return to the pale patches. Lightened or whitened hair can be concealed with dye. 

There’s no cure for vitiligo, but many treatments can help restore lost skin pigment or improve the appearance of the white patches.

Some medications can help improve the look of the skin. Corticosteroid creams control inflammation, and when they’re applied to vitiligo patches, the skin’s color may return. This can take several months. Other medications that doctors may prescribe include immunosuppressant creams. Sometimes, medication is combined with phototherapy. 

In some cases, doctors may recommend surgical procedures like skin grafting. This procedure involves removing a patch of normally pigmented skin from your body and attaching it to a depigmented area. 

Complications of vitiligo

People with vitiligo and other skin pigmentation disorders may feel distressed about their skin’s appearance. Other possible complications of vitiligo include sunburn and hearing loss. 

The appearance of vitiligo skin can be upsetting, and many people with vitiligo feel that their condition has a moderate to severe effect on their quality of life. Some people with the condition may feel embarrassed about their skin, resulting in low self-esteem. They may withdraw from social situations or experience social anxiety. In addition, studies have shown that one-quarter of vitiligo patients have anxiety, major depression, or other psychiatric conditions. 

Vitiligo patches have a lack of melanin, they can easily become sunburned. Sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer, so people with vitiligo need to be careful to wear sunscreen.

Melanin helps protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays, and since pale vitiligo patches have a lack of melanin, they can easily become sunburned. Sunburns aren’t just painful; they increase the risk of skin cancer, so people with this condition need to be careful to wear sunscreen. 

Vitiligo can also lead to hearing loss. There are melanocytes in the inner ear, and if they’re affected by vitiligo, hearing loss can result. This complication is reported to occur in as many as 38 percent of people with vitiligo.

When to see a specialist

See your doctor if you have pale or white patches on your skin. They may perform tests, such as skin biopsies or blood tests, to diagnose the condition. If necessary, your doctor may refer you to a specialist. You may be sent to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin conditions, or a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in autoimmune conditions.

Conclusion

Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease that results in pale or white patches on the skin. There’s no cure for this condition, but there are many treatments to help improve the look of your hair or skin. If you think you have this condition, talk to your doctor.

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