Vitiligo is a condition that causes the skin to lose color, appearing as light or white patches. Individuals of all races and skin types can get the disease. You usually have the condition for life with nearly half of all people diagnosed with vitiligo developing it before the age of 21, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Knowing what to expect may help make coping with the condition easier.
Although many people experience no additional symptoms, some individuals with vitiligo report skin that itches or hurts. The condition often affects the hands but can progress and cover large areas of skin. In some cases, vitiligo occurs inside the mouth or can make scalp hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows lose color and turn white.
A chronic skin condition, vitiligo can be localized with just one or a few patches of lighter skin appearing on the body. Most people with the condition have generalized vitiligo, which is characterized by scattered patches of skin on multiple areas of the body. Universal vitiligo, which causes individuals to lose most of the pigment in their skin, is rare.
Although it's neither contagious nor life-threatening, vitiligo is a chronic skin condition that can impact a person's emotional health and self-esteem. Some people with vitiligo that affects certain locations, like the face, or larger areas of the body develop depression because of the appearance of their skin.
If you are concerned about white patches on your skin, a dermatology physician will examine the affected areas, ask you if any of your relatives have vitiligo, and may order a blood test. You are at higher risk of getting vitiligo if there is a family history of the disease or if you have an autoimmune disorder such as thyroid disease or alopecia areata (spot baldness).
Since there is no cure for vitiligo, treatment focuses on slowing or stopping the progress of the disease and restoring lost skin color. If vitiligo isn't extensive and affects only an area of your body usually covered by clothing, you may choose not to treat it. You can also use cosmetics to make the skin patches appear less noticeable.
Medical treatments include:
Topical corticosteroids. Applying the medication can help repigment the skin. Dermatologists prescribe topical medicines if you have a few small patches of affected skin. Topical medications are least effective on the hands and feet. Use of the topical corticosteroids over time can make the skin dry and thin.
Light therapy. Doctors typically use lasers to treat small areas of vitiligo and UVB light to treat the condition if it's widespread. Although treatment can restore color to your skin, you can eventually lose some of the color again after stopping the treatments.
PUVA light therapy (photochemotherapy). Dermatologists offer this treatment method for widespread vitiligo to restore pigment to the face, trunk, upper arms, and thighs. Treatment involves a combination of light therapy and a medication known as psoralen, which can be taken orally or applied to the skin. Side effects that can occur include itching, blistering of the skin, and a higher risk of developing cataracts. You also are at increased risk of getting skin cancer.
Surgery. You may choose surgery if other treatment options aren't effective. Skin grafting procedures involve removing skin from an unaffected area of the body and placing it on small patches of skin that have lost pigment. Surgery is not an option for children with vitiligo or individuals who scar easily.