What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo causes white patches to develop on the skin. These patches can occur on various areas of the body, and they are the result of melanocytes (cells that produce pigment) within the skin being destroyed.

While some individuals may only get a few white patches, others will have more extensive loss of their natural skin color. Also, vitiligo can develop in other areas that have pigment, such as the hair, inside the mouth, and the eyes.

The destruction of melanocytes is considered an autoimmune disorder, and the cause isn’t known. The condition can occur at any age, and it is associated with pernicious anemia, hyperthyroidism, and Addison disease, which are autoimmune diseases.

What are the Symptoms of Vitiligo?

Vitiligo will cause flat areas of the skin to lose pigment. The skin feels normal and no other changes will occur to the skin.

The areas affected will showcase a darker border, and the edges will be irregular but well defined.

White patches, which can appear gradually or suddenly, most often appear on the knees, elbows, feet, hands, genitals, and face. They also appear on both sides of the body.

Vitiligo Causes

Vitiligo is caused when melanocytes, cells which are responsible for giving our hair and skin color, begin to die. It is not entirely clear what causes the cells to die, but experts theorize that it could be related to autoimmune disorders or the body’s nervous system.

Some people with vitiligo suffer from some kind of autoimmune disorder, and they are deemed to have “non-segmental” vitiligo.

Autoimmune disorders frequently suffered by individuals with vitiligo include:

  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Adrenocortical insufficiency
  • Alopecia areata
  • Pernicious anemia

Individuals with vitiligo who do not have a diagnosed autoimmune disorder are said to have “segmental” vitiligo. Some studies suggest that it could be caused by problems with the body’s nervous system.

There is also a genetic factor to vitiligo, as it has been known to run in families in some instances. However, the vast majority of people with the condition do not have a family history of it and will not pass it on to their children.

How is Vitiligo Treated?

Vitiligo will be hard to treat, but early treatment options can include medications, such as corticosteroid creams, topical drugs, and immunosuppressant creams, as well as phototherapy.

Another treatment option would involve grafting the skin from normally pigments parts of the body to areas that have lost pigment.

Individuals who have vitiligo need to apply sunscreen, as the lack of pigment will make the skin more susceptible to sun damage. They can also use skin dyes and cover-up makeup products.

For extreme cases, all of the remaining pigmented skin could be permanently depigmented.

Vitiligo Prevention

Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to prevent vitiligo; people either have the condition or they don’t. However, it may be possible to slow the progression of the condition.

Firstly, it’s important to protect the skin from the sun, as sun exposure is known to worsen vitiligo. Not only that, but patches of skin which have lost their color are more susceptible to sunburn. It’s important to wear broad spectrum, waterproof sunscreens which offer SPF 30 protection or higher, and to seek out shade when the sun is at its highest during the day. Tanning beds and sun lamps should also be avoided.

For people with vitiligo, if the skin is wounded it can result in a new patch of vitiligo occurring within one to two weeks. This is known as the Koebner phenomenon. For this reason, it is important to take extra care to avoid wounding the skin in any way. This includes getting a tattoo.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 09, 2017