Vitiligo (vit-ill-EYE-go) is a disorder that causes patches of a person’s skin to become white. This happens because cells that make the color in your skin are destroyed.
Despite the fact that between 2 and 5 million people in the United States have vitiligo, most Americans who haven’t experienced it themselves or haven’t known individuals who have suffered with it, either misunderstand what it is or are completely unaware that it exists. This lack of awareness is one of the many reasons why vitiligo is such a devastating condition.
Imagine that one day you notice a light patch of skin on your face, chest, neck, hands or limb and over time that patch begins to grow. Without warning, how you look at yourself and how others perceive you completely changes. One of the first steps toward dealing with the effects of vitiligo, is to understand what it is and what it is not.
What is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a condition that causes white patches of skin to appear on different parts of the body. The color (or pigment) in the skin, is produced by cells called melanocytes. When these cells are damaged or destroyed, the areas of the skin where they were located lose their color. These light patches more commonly develop in areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, lips, scalp, hands, arms and feet. But, they also may appear in parts of the body not exposed to sunlight, including the armpits and groin, nostrils, genitals, and more. Vitiligo is not a contagious disease.
What causes vitiligo?
The bottom line is that we don’t know what causes vitiligo. Some experts believe it is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases cause your own immune system to attack some part of your body, as what happens when the melanocytes are attacked and destroyed. Others believe it is linked to certain genes, and still others believe it could be related to a sunburn or severe emotional event or stress. But much more research is needed to determine the true cause or causes of the disorder.
Who is affected by vitiligo?
The majority of people with vitiligo develop it between the ages of 20 and 30, but it can occur at any age. The disorder affects all races and sexes equally, but it is most noticeable in people with darker skin. We know that people with an autoimmune disease such as hyperthyroidism are more likely to get vitiligo, but we don’t know how it is connected with such diseases.
Vitiligo also may be hereditary. Children whose parents have the condition are more likely to develop vitiligo. However, having a parent or parents with vitiligo does not automatically mean a child will develop the disease.
Is vitiligo painful?
Only a few people who suffer with vitiligo describe it as being physically painful, although the light patches of the skin affected by it can be particularly susceptible to severe sunburn, which can be quite painful. However, vitiligo can be life-altering.
Researchers have found that many people who have vitiligo feel anxious, selfconscious and embarrassed around others. It’s easy to understand why. People who don’t understand the condition often stare and make rude remarks. Others may be concerned about whether it is contagious. Facing these reactions day in and day out can take a toll on a person’s self-image. Low self-esteem can develop, which can lead to depression and alienation, so developing a support system, seeking therapy if need be and developing coping strategies is crucial.
How is vitiligo treated?
So far, there is no cure for vitiligo, but we now have more treatments than ever before that may help restore lost skin color. New medications improved light therapies and advances in surgery are giving patients better results.
Even though people who have vitiligo are often otherwise healthy, it’s important to find a doctor like a dermatologist who is trained to diagnose and treat vitiligo. Because every case is different, you and your doctor will need to discuss the treatment options and decide which course or a combination of approaches is best for you. Treatments vary from topical creams such as corticosteroids and other topical medications that affect the immune system, to light therapies and even surgery. Some approaches have serious side effects to be considered. Whatever your choice of treatment plans, the process may take many months to judge its effectiveness.
Living with vitiligo
When you have vitiligo, it is not unusual to become depressed about the change in your appearance. There are several things you can do to cope with the disorder:
Learn more about vitiligo
For reliable information about vitiligo visit www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/vitiligo or https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/color-problems/vitiligo. Locally, contact Mira Walker, doctoral student at Mississippi College and founder and CEO of Vitiligo Beautified, who speaks to civic clubs, workshops and schools about vitiligo to bring greater awareness of the disease and offer education and support for those suffering from the condition. She can be reached at 601-906-2778 or firstname.lastname@example.org.