What is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease in which pigment cells (melanocytes) are destroyed, resulting in irregularly shaped white patches on the skin. Any part of the body may be affected. Common sites are exposed areas (face, neck, eyes, nostrils, nipples, navel, genitalia), body folds (armpits, groin), sites of injury (cuts, scrapes, burns) and around pigmented moles
(halo naevi). The hair may also go grey early on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes and body. White hair is called 'poliosis'. The retina may also be affected.
Vitiligo consists of white patches of skin that are caused by the loss of melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. Melanin is produced by special cells called melanocytes, which are destroyed in people who have vitiligo. No one knows exactly why these cells are destroyed, but one theory is that vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder, in which the body's immune system mistakenly targets the body's own cells rather than protect them from outside invaders.
People experience different degrees of vitiligo. In some people, it may be hardly noticeable, while in others it is obvious. Dark-skinned people may notice more contrast between the vitiligo patches and their normal skin, while light-skinned people may not notice much of a difference, or may notice it only in the summer when they tan.
People with vitiligo have an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases, such as hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid), hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), Addison's disease (a disease that causes a decrease in the function of the adrenal gland) and pernicious anemia (vitamin B12 deficiency).
This disease affects an estimated 1% of the world's population. It affects individuals of all ethnic origins and both sexes, but is much more easily noticed on darker skin as areas that fail to tan. It is hereditary in one third of those affected. Vitiligo often starts on the hands, feet or face, and frequently pigment loss is progressive. Half the patients first notice vitiligo before 20 years of age. It often appears in an area of minor injury or sunburn.
It is believed that vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder (autoimmune means the bodies own immune system turns on itself). Certain white blood cells direct the destruction of melanocytes. People with vitiligo are also somewhat more prone to other autoimmune diseases, such as alopecia areata, autoimmune thyroid disorders, Addison's disease, pernicious anemia, and diabetes mellitus.
More information on vitiligo
What is vitiligo? - Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease in which pigment cells (melanocytes) are destroyed, resulting in irregularly shaped white patches on the skin. Vitiligo consists of white patches of skin.
What causes vitiligo? - In vitiligo, specific autoantibodies against a patient's melanocytes are found in the blood. Vitiligo may also be due to a nerve disorder.
What are the symptoms of vitiligo? - People who develop vitiligo usually first notice white patches on their skin. Vitiligo causes light or white patches on skin that are symmetrical.
How is the diagnosis of vitiligo made? - Important vitiligo diagnosis factors in a patient's medical history include: vitiligo in the family; a rash, sunburn, or other skin trauma, tress or physical illness.
What are the medical treatments for vitiligo? - The goal of treating vitiligo is to restore the function of the skin and to improve the patient's appearance. Vitiligo should be treated only if it causes emotional or social distress.
What are the surgical therapies for vitiligo? - Surgical therapies for vitiligo include autologous skin grafts, skin grafts using blisters, micropigmentation (tattooing), and autologous melanocyte transplants.
What alternative therapies are available for vitiligo? - Alternative therapies for vitiligo include sunscreens, cosmetics, counseling from support groups.