Vitiligo (pronounced vit-ill-EYE-go) is a widespread disorder in which the skin develops white patches on different parts of a person’s body.
This change in skin color happens when the cells that are responsible for making pigment (color) in a person’s skin are destroyed. These pigment producing cells are known as melanocytes (ma-LAN-o-sites).
Apart from visible body parts, vitiligo can affect a person’s mucous membranes (like the tissue inside the nose and mouth) and the eye.
What are the causes of vitiligo?
The leading cause of vitiligo remains unknown. However, vitiligo may be described as an autoimmune disease. Such diseases show up only when a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks other parts of the person’s body.
In the case of vitiligo, a person’s immune system may attack the melanocytes in their skin. Also, there is a possibility that at least one or even more genes may cause a person to be more likely to have this disorder.
While some researchers believe that the melanocytes cause destruction to themselves, others believe in the possibility of a single event such as emotional distress or sunburn, causing vitiligo. However, none of these events have been proven to lead to vitiligo.
Who is affected by vitiligo?
Most individuals develop this skin condition in their early or mid-twenties, but science has proven that vitiligo can occur at any age.
This disorder is not races or gender-specific, which means that it can affect all races and sexes. However, vitiligo is more noticeable in people who have brown or dark skin.
People who have certain autoimmune diseases (most especially hyperthyroidism) stand a higher chance of getting vitiligo than those who have never had any autoimmune diseases.
However, it is a fact that scientists have not been able to figure out why vitiligo is connected with autoimmune diseases. However, it is also a fact that most people who have vitiligo do not have any other autoimmune disease.
Vitiligo may sometimes run in families. Kids whose parents or siblings have vitiligo are more likely to develop skin disorder as well. However, most kids may not get to develop vitiligo even if any of their parents have it.
What are the common symptoms of vitiligo?
White patches on apparent areas of the skin are the primary sign of vitiligo. Such spots are located mostly in areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun. The vitiligo patches may appear on the arms, hands, feet, lips, and face.
Some other areas where patches are commonly seen include:
- The armpits and groin
- Around the mouth
- Rectal areas.
People who have vitiligo often notice the early development of grey hair. Those who have brown or black skin may also notice color loss inside their mouths.
Will the white patches spread?
It is not possible for anyone to predict whether or not vitiligo patched will spread to other parts of the body.
Some people with vitiligo have noticed that their white patches do not spread. But that rarely happens as a more significant percentage of vitiligo patients often report white patches spreading to other areas of their body. For some individuals, vitiligo doesn’t spread quickly; it follows a slow pace over many years.
However, some others have reported that spreading occurs immediately. People have also reported more white patches after going through episodes of physical or emotional stress.
How is vitiligo diagnosed?
When a doctor suspects vitiligo, he or she will use a physical exam, family and medical history, and some lab tests to diagnose vitiligo. Your doctor may ask questions like:
- Do you or any of your family members have an autoimmune disease?
- Do you have any family members with vitiligo?
- Did you notice a sunburn, rash, or other skin issues before the white patches showed up?
- Did you suffer any type of stress or physical illness recently?
- Did your start getting gray before you turned 35?
- Are you sensitive to the sun?
After asking these questions, your doctor will have to do a physical exam to eliminate the possibility of other medical problems.
Tests for vitiligo might include:
Collecting a small sample (biopsy) of the affected skin to be examined
- An eye exam.
- Blood tests
How is vitiligo treated?
So far, treatments have shown sometimes to help make a person’s skin look more even. Possible treatment choices depend on:
- How widespread the patches are
- The treatment a person prefers to use.
- The number of white patches
Some types of treatment are not the best for everyone who has vitiligo. Many treatment options can come with their fair share of unwanted side effects. Treatments for vitiligo can take a long time and may not even work.
The treatment options currently available for vitiligo includes surgical, medical, and other types of treatment. Most vitiligo treatment options are aimed at restoring the lost color back to the white patches of skin.
Medical treatments include:
- Medicines (such as topical creams) which you have to rub on the skin
- Medications that you take by swallowing
- A treatment that combines the use of drug and ultraviolet A (UVA) light (PUVA)
- Getting rid of the dark skin color from other parts of the body to achieve a match with the areas with white patches.
Surgical treatments include:
- Skin grafts from a patient’s own tissues. In this case, the doctor will take skin from an area of the patient’s body and attach the removed skin to another area. This method of treatment is sometimes used for people with only a few little patches of vitiligo.
- Tattooing small areas of skin.
Other treatments for vitiligo include:
- Cosmetics, like makeup or dye, to blend the white patches with the standard skin color
- Counseling and support.
What can people do to cope with vitiligo?
When people have vitiligo, they may become depressed or upset about the physical change in their skin. However, there are several things that can be done to cope with this skin disorder:
Get a doctor who is excellent at treating vitiligo. Whoever you decide to use as a doctor must also have a reputation for being a good listener and be capable of providing patients with emotional support.
Read and ask questions about the disorder and available treatment choices. This can go a long way to help you make the right decisions about your treatment.
If you do not have a family member who deals with vitiligo, you can find and talk with other people who have the condition.
There are vitiligo groups online and in some physical locations. These groups can also help you locate a support group near you (you can even check your local listings).
Friends and family are also a great source of support.
Some people, especially ladies with vitiligo have noticed that cosmetics they have used for covering the white patches, change their appearance to how it was before the condition, and it helps them feel better about themselves.
If you have vitiligo, you may need to try different brands of concealers and foundations before you find the product that works best.
What studies are being done on vitiligo?
In recent years, more has been known about vitiligo, thanks to scientists who have carried out gene research during this time. Current research being carried out on the condition includes studies to investigate:
New treatment options and a better understanding of the condition through the use of a mouse model.
How stress or trauma to a person’s skin can trigger the condition or the appearance of new white patches.
Analysis of genes that have been found to be linked to vitiligo. Genes that may lead to the development of vitiligo, or contribute to having the condition.
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