You’ve noticed folks who have large areas of skin discoloration and perhaps you didn’t know what caused the condition. Vitiligo (vit-ih-LIE-go) is a disease that causes the loss of skin color or pigmentation in blotches. The extent and rate of color loss from vitiligo are unpredictable. It can affect the skin on any part of your body. It may also affect hair, the inside of the mouth and even the eyes.
Vitiligo affects people of all skin types, but it may be more noticeable in people with darker skin like Blacks and Hispanics. The condition is not life-threatening or contagious and is not caused by an infection.
What are the symptoms?
It usually begins as a patch of pale skin that eventually turns white. Sometimes there might be blood vessels under the skin which causes the patch to have a pinkish hue. The patch’s edges might be smooth, irregular or red and inflamed. The edges might also have a brownish discoloration (hyperpigmentation).
Vitiligo may cause occasional itchiness, but the condition varies from individual to individual. The patches of discolored skin might be small and scattered, or cover large areas of skin and are usually permanent.
The areas that are most affected by the disease are:
- the areas surrounding the mouth and eyes
- fingers and wrists
- genitals inside the mouth
- Vitiligo might also extend to the scalp and can turn hair in the affected area white or grey.
Different types of vitiligo
Basically, there are two common types of vitiligo
Although rare, vitiligo can affect the entire body and this is called universal or complete vitiligo.
Non-segmental vitiligo can appear on both sides of the body in symmetrical white patches. In segmental vitiligo, which is a less common form (but seen more often in children), the white patches appear to only affect one area of the body.
The disease is brought on by a lack of melanin in the skin. Melanin is produced by skin cells called melanocytes and vitiligo occurs when the cells that produce melanin die or stop functioning.
Non-segmental vitiligo is thought to be caused by autoimmune conditions like hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland), but not everyone with vitiligo will develop these conditions.
You might be at risk for developing vitiligo if:
- there is a family history of the disease
- there is a family history of autoimmune diseases
- you have another autoimmune condition
- you have melanoma (a more serious skin cancer) or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system)
- you have changes in your genes that are known to be linked to non-segmental vitiligo
Vitiligo can also be triggered by certain life events like:
- stressful childbirth
- skin damage like a bad sunburn
- exposure to certain chemicals
Diagnosing the disease
A doctor will examine the affected areas, then follow-up with a series of question. He is looking to determine if you’ve any skin injuries, treatments, sunburn issues, or if whether there is a family history of vitiligo or autoimmune illnesses.
A Wood’s lamp might also help a doctor examine your skin more closely. The lamp uses ultraviolet light and this helps a medical practitioner differentiate vitiligo from other skin conditions that also involve a loss of pigmentation.
Vitiligo patches are usually permanent, but there are certain treatment options available to help improve their look. If the affected areas are small, a skin camouflage cream can be used to help provide a more even tone.
A combination of phototherapy which is a process using light, plus medication, can offer some positive results.
Treatments might help bring back some color to the affected areas of skin; however, their effects are not lasting because the condition will continue to spread.
Since vitiligo causes a lack of melanin, the affected skin will be more vulnerable to the sun’s intense rays which means sunscreen is a must.
The disease can also affect the eyes which can result in such problems like inflammation of the iris. Someone who has the condition might also experience partial hearing loss.
Many vitiligo patients feel stigmatized and distressed by their condition which can lead to depression or low self-esteem. They feel they attract undue attention from the general public’s sometimes whispered comments, antagonism, and ostracism.
If you or a loved one suffer from the effects of vitiligo and need to find out more about it or need support, here are some groups that can assist:
Vitiligo Support International–www.vitiligosupport.org
National Vitiligo Foundation–rarediseases.org
Global Vitiligo Foundation–www.globalvitiligofoundation.org