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Last Updated: October 25, 2017

Vitiligo

Overview

Vitiligo is a disorder characterized by blotches of discolored skin. The blotches appear lighter in color because the underlying cells that give skin its color (melanocytes) either die or lose function. Vitiligo is commonly observed on exposed skin (e.g. face, neck, hands) but can affect any part of the body that has pigmented cells. In some cases, it may cause loss of color inside the mouth, on the eyes, and on the hair. Due to this alteration of physical appearance, it can lead to severe social and emotion anxiety. Other complications include vision or hearing difficulties and sensitivity to the sun.

hand showing pigment loss from vitiligo

There are two types of vitiligo: segmental and non-segmental.

The extent of pigment loss on the body is described as localized, generalized, or universal. The localized and universal subtypes describe the two extreme forms of disease - a few blotches versus pigment loss over the majority of the body, respectively. The most common subtype of vitiligo is generalized, which is characterized by scattered patches throughout the body.

In America, 1 to 2 million individuals suffer from vitiligo. This disease is not contagious or life threatening, and has been observed equally across all genders, races and ethnicities. Vitiligo is a lifelong condition that generally begins before the age of 20. There is no cure, but there are ways to minimize the appearance of skin discoloration. Popular musical figure Michael Jackson was famously known for suffering from this skin disease.

Causes and Risk Factors

The light/white blotches of skin associated with vitiligo form when melanocytes fail to produce melanin. It is not known what causes melanocytes to die or stop producing melanin, but the following may play a role:  

Symptoms

The main symptom of vitiligo is pigment loss on the skin. The light/white blotches generally appear before the age of 20 and can vary in size and number. This condition is not associated with physical pain or discomfort. Symptoms may appear as:

Diagnosis and Treatment

In order to diagnose vitiligo, a physician will examine the affected skin and inquire about possible family history of the disorder. Blood tests that check for autoimmune thyroid disease or biopsies of the affected tissue may be performed. Individuals with discoloration in the eye or ear may require examination by a specialist for those organs.

hand with patches of pigment loss from vitiligo

Since no cure is available for vitiligo, the main goal of treatment is to improve the appearance of discolored skin. The safest treatment option is cosmetics. Medication, light therapy, and surgery can cause dryness, itching, and burning of the skin or more serious side effects.

Prevention

Most cases of vitiligo cannot be prevented. Reducing exposure to known triggers (e.g. sun, chemicals, stress) can help prevent pigment loss in new areas of the body.

Sources

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Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD