What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo causes white patches to appear on the skin. The vitilgo patches may appear nearly anywhere, but are more common in areas where the skin is exposed to the sun.

Common areas to be affected include the following:

  • Armpits and groin
  • Around the mouth
  • Eyelids
  • Nostrils
  • Navel

What causes vitiligo?

The cause is unknown. Vitiligo may be an autoimmune disease, which happens when your immune system mistakenly attacks some part of your own body. In vitiligo, the immune system may destroy the melanocytes in the skin (these are the cells that make the pigment in your skin called melanin). When attacked, they can no longer make pigment in normal amounts.

It is also possible that one or more genes may make a person more likely to get the disorder.

Some researchers think that the melanocytes destroy themselves. Others think that a single event such as sunburn or emotional distress can cause vitiligo. But these events have not been proven to cause vitiligo.

Who is affected by vitiligo?

1-2 million people in the U.S. are affected by vitiligo. Most develop symptoms before their 40th birthday. The disorder is equally likely to affect men and women, and people all races

People with certain autoimmune diseases, such as hyperthyroidism or celiac disease, are more likely to get vitiligo than people who don’t have any autoimmune diseases. However, most people have no other autoimmune disease.

Vitiligo may also run in families. Children whose parents have the disorder are more likely to develop it. However, most children will not get vitiligo even if a parent has it.

People with vitiligo often have hair that turns gray early. Those with dark skin may notice a loss of color inside their mouths.

Will the white patches of vitiligo spread?

There is no way to tell if it will spread. For some people, the white patches do not spread. But often the white patches will spread to other areas of the body. For some people, vitiligo spreads slowly, over many years. For others, spreading occurs quickly. Some people have reported more white patches after physical or emotional stress.

How is it treated?

There are several treatment options that are aimed at restoring color to the white patches of skin. The choice of treatment depends on:

  • The number of white patches
  • How widespread the patches are
  • The treatment the person prefers

Some treatments are not right for everyone. Many can have unwanted side effects. Treatments can take a long time, and sometimes they don’t work.

Current treatment options for vitiligo include medical, surgical, and other treatments.

Medical treatments include:

  • Medicines (such as topical corticosteroids) that you put on the skin
  • Medicines that you take by mouth
  • Excimer Laser
  • Removing the color from other areas so they match the white patches

Surgical treatments include:

  • Skin grafts from a person’s own tissues. The doctor takes skin from one area of a patient’s body and attaches it to another area. This is sometimes used for people with small patches of vitiligo.
  • Tattooing small areas of skin to apply pigment and diminish the pale appearance of the vitiligo patch.

Other treatments include:

  • Sunscreens
  • Cosmetics, such as makeup or dye, to cover the white patches

What can people do to cope with vitiligo?

When you have vitiligo, you may be upset or depressed about the change in your appearance. You can do several things to cope with the disorder:

  • Learn about the disorder and treatment choices. This can help you make decisions about your treatment.
  • Talk with other people who have vitiligo. A vitiligo group can help you find a support group (check your local listings). Family and friends are another source of support.
  • Find a counselor if you need further support.

Some people with vitiligo have found that cosmetics that cover the white patches improve their appearance and help them feel better about themselves. A person may need to try several brands of concealing cosmetics before finding the product that works best.

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