Vitiligo is a disease that causes the loss of skin color in blotches. The extent and rate of color loss from vitiligo is unpredictable. It can affect the skin on any part of your body. It may also affect hair, the inside of the mouth and even the eyes.Normally, the color of hair, skin and eyes is determined by melanin. Vitiligo occurs when the cells that produce melanin die or stop functioning.Vitiligo affects people of all skin types, but it may be more noticeable in people with darker skin. The condition is not life-threatening or contagious. It can be stressful or make you feel bad about yourself. Treatment for vitiligo may improve the appearance of the affected skin but does not cure the disease.
The main sign of vitiligo is color (pigment) loss that produces light or white patches on your skin. Usually, the discoloration first shows on sun-exposed areas, such as the hands, feet, arms, face and lips.Vitiligo signs include:
- Skin discoloration
- Premature whitening or graying of the hair on your scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows or beard (usually before age 35)
- Loss of color in the tissues that line the inside of your mouth and nose (mucous membranes)
- Loss of or change in color of the inner layer of the eyeball (retina)
- Discolored patches around the armpits, navel, genitals and rectum
Vitiligo can start at any age, but most often appears before age 20.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if areas of your skin, hair or eyes lose coloring. Vitiligo has no cure. But treatment may help to stop or slow the discoloring process and return some color to your skin.
Vitiligo occurs when melanin-forming cells (melanocytes) die or stop producing melanin — the pigment that gives your skin, hair and eyes color. The involved patches of skin become lighter or white. Doctors don't know why the cells fail or die. It may be related to:
- A disorder in which your immune system attacks and destroys the melanocytes in the skin
- Family history (heredity)
- A trigger event, such as sunburn, stress or exposure to industrial chemicals
People with vitiligo may be at increased risk of:
- Social or psychological distress
- Sunburn and skin cancer
- Eye problems, such as inflammation of the iris (iritis)
- Hearing loss
- Side effects due to treatment, such as dry skin and itching
Preparing for an appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. You may then be referred to a specialist in skin disorders (dermatologist). Here’s what you can do.
- Review your family medical history. Find out if anyone in your family has vitiligo, a thyroid condition or a disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissues in the body (autoimmune disease).
- List relevant personal information, such as recent major stressful events, life changes, sunburns and rashes.
- List any medications, vitamins and supplements you're taking.
- Make note of questions you'd like to ask your doctor, which will help you make the most of your limited time together.
Many treatments are available to help restore skin color or even out skin tone. Results vary and are unpredictable. Some treatments have serious side effects. So your doctor may suggest that you first try improving the appearance of your skin by applying self-tanning products or makeup.