What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes you to lose skin color in patches. It can affect any area of skin on your body, your hair or inside the mouth. It affects people of all skin tones but is more pronounced in people who have darker skin. Although vitiligo is not contagious or life-threatening, it can be concerning because it affects your appearance.

Vitiligo occurs when the pigment producing cells, called melanocytes, stop producing pigment. There are treatments to restore color to your affected skin, but they cannot prevent a recurrence.

Causes of vitiligo

Vitiligo occurs when your melanocytes, cells that produce the color in your skin, hair and eyes, stop producing melanin or die. When this happens, blotches of your skin can become white or lighten.

Although the cause of why the melanocytes die is unknown, it may be related to the following factors:

  • A disorder that causes your immune system to destroy melanocytes in the skin
  • Family history of vitiligo
  • Trigger such as sunburn, stress or chemical exposure

Risk factors for vitiligo

There are a variety of factors that can increase your risk of developing vitiligo including:

  • You have an autoimmune disease
  • You have a family history of vitiligo
  • You recently experienced a high stress situation, such as a major life change
  • You were severely sunburned recently

Symptoms of vitiligo

Symptoms of vitiligo include:

  • Presence of lighter patches or depigmented areas of the skin that typically appear on the extremities — hands, face and wrists. The patches are more pronounced in areas around the eyes, mouth, nostrils and genitalia. They start small but grow and change shape as the disease progresses.
  • Premature graying of hair on scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows or beard.
  • Change or loss of color in the retina (the inner layer of the eye).
  • Itching before a new patch develops on the skin.

Diagnosis of vitiligo

Your Mercy Health primary care doctor or dermatologist can diagnose vitiligo during a clinic visit. He or she will take a full medical history, evaluate your risk factors and perform a physical exam. During the physical exam, your doctor will evaluate the white patches on your skin —potentially using a Wood lamp. A Wood lamp uses ultraviolet light to examine pigment loss on your skin.

In some cases, your dermatologist will perform a skin biopsy to determine if you have melanocytes in the skin. If you do not, it could be an indication of vitiligo. Your doctor may also order a blood test to rule out any other autoimmune diseases.

Treatments for vitiligo

Although there is not a cure for vitiligo, treatment can help improve the skin’s appearance.

Treatments may include:

  • Medications such as corticosteroid creams or ointments
  • Using self-tanners or makeup to cover up patches
  • Light therapy such as narrowband ultraviolet B therapy
  • Removing pigment from surrounding unaffected skin
  • Skin grafting
  • Blister grafting
  • Tattoos

Because there are side effects or risks associated with some of the treatment options, your Mercy Health doctor will outline all the options and work with you to develop a treatment plan that will be most effective for you.

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