Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes a loss of the brown pigmentation from areas of the skin, resulting in irregular white patches. These areas do not feel any different from other parts of the skin; they are merely affected by the loss of pigmentation. Vitiligo presents primarily on the skin, but can also appear anywhere that pigmentation occurs such as the hair and sometimes even eyes.
Vitiligo affects about one out of every hundred people in the United States, and may appear at any age. The condition can affect people of all races and ethnicities. It is believed that vitiligo occurs when immune cells destroy the cells which produce brown pigment, called melanocytes. This is thought to be an autoimmune problem, but the exact causes are unknown. It also may be linked to heredity factors, as there is an increased rate in the condition among some families.
Patches of lighter-colored or white skin appear any place on the body. Some people with vitiligo develop a few patches, while others are affected in large parts of the skin area. The edges of the patches are well-defined, but irregular. There are generally not any other symptoms of the condition, and people affected otherwise feel completely healthy.
Vitiligo is not contagious and not life-threatening. However, because it is so visible, it can be very life-altering. Many people with vitiligo develop low self-esteem and even serious depression. It is a chronic condition, meaning that most people who develop vitiligo have it for life; therefore it is important to develop coping strategies.
A dermatologist will perform a physical exam and review your medical history, including that of your family. A patient may also need a blood test to check thyroid problems, as many people with vitiligo also have an autoimmune thyroid disease. Vitiligo is difficult to treat, and some people choose not to treat it, as the only symptom is the loss of skin color in affected areas.
Some medicines that can be used to treat vitiligo include cortisteroid creams or ointments; immunosuppressant creams or ointments, such as Elidel and Protopic; or topical drugs such as Oxsoralen. XTRAC, a Phototherapy treatment, is procedure which exposes the skin to ultraviolet light and can be successful in treating vitiligo and reducing pigmentation. This treatment works best on the face, and is least effective on the hands and feet.