Skinformation: Vitiligo

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo, pronounced vit-ih-LIE-go, is a long-term condition where pale white patches develop on the skin. It is the most common skin depigmentation disorder that affects approximetley 0.5% of the world’s population.

Half of people affected present vitiligo before the age of 20 and both sexes are equally affected by the condition.

Vitiligo can affect any area of skin, but it commonly happens on the face, neck and hands, and in skin creases. The discolored areas can get bigger with time.

Vitiligo symptoms include:

  1. Patchy loss of skin color, which usually first appears on the hands, face, and areas around body openings.
  2. Premature whitening or graying of the hair on your scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows or beard
  3. Loss of color in the tissues that line the inside of your mouth and nose (mucous membranes)

Vitiligo often starts as a pale patch of skin that gradually turns completely white. The centre of a patch may be white, with paler skin around it. If there are blood vessels under the skin, the patch may be slightly pink, rather than white.

There are two main types of vitiligo; segmental and non-segmental. The type you have depends on where the discoloured patches of skin on your body are. It is also possible for vitiligo to affect your whole body.

How is vitiligo caused?

A loss of epidermal melanocytes is the pathologic hallmark of vitiligo. Melanocytes are melanin-producing neural crest-derived cells located in various parts of your body. Melanin is a dark pigment primarily responsible for skin colour. Therefore, a lack of melanocytes results in a lack of dark skin.

It’s not clear exactly why the melanocytes disappear from the affected areas of skin. However, it is thought that in segmental vitiligo a disturbance in the nervous system is a key precipitating factor.

The initial cause of nonsegmental vitiligo is still debated but appears to involve immunologic factors, oxidative stress, or a sympathetic neurogenic disturbance.

How do you treat vitiligo?

The white patches caused by vitiligo are usually permanent, although treatment options are available to reduce their appearance.Treatment for vitiligo may restore color to the affected skin but it doesn’t prevent continued loss of skin color or a recurrence.

Steroid creams can also be used on the skin to restore some pigment, however long-term use can cause stretch marks and thinning of the skin. If steroid creams do not work, phototherapy (treatment with light) may be used.

Although treatment may help restore colour to your skin, the effect does not usually last. Treatment cannot stop the condition spreading.

If vitiligo is severe or making you unhappy you should see a doctor.