What is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a skin condition characterized by the appearance of discolored white patches on the skin. It occurs as a result of the skin pigment-producing cells dying or becoming unable to produce the pigment. The condition is quite rare and affects less than 1% of the total population worldwide. Vitiligo mainly affects the skin and usually does not cause any other problems but can be debilitating due to the cosmetic implications.
The exact cause is not known but anumber of factors like oxidative stress, family history and autoimmune conditions are thought to be associated with vitiligo. Sometimes the depigmented patches of skin may return to a normal color without any treatment. However, for other cases different treatment options are available such as the application of corticosteroids or immunomodulators on the affected skin. Sometimes skin grafting and tattooing are also by patients.
The most common symptom is the appearance of milky-white patches on the skin due to loss of natural pigmentation. Other less common symptoms are premature graying of the scalp hair, beard, eyelashes and eyebrows, depigmented patches on the mucous membrane of the mouth even the inner color of the eye may also be changed.
Any part of the body may be affected but usually the white patches appears first on sun exposed areas of the body namely the hands, feet, arms, legs and lips. Sometimes the condition may start from groin area. Vitiligo may appear in any person of any age but more commonlythe symptoms first appear among people between the age of 10 to 30 years.
It is quite impossible to predict the natural course of the disease as in many cases the condition stops progressing and there may be re-pigmentation of the depigmented areas. However, in most cases the condition spreads to other body parts over years. Apart from the physical symptoms, vitiligo patients also suffer from considerable mental pressure because of the aesthetic impact of the skin patches. This can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression and social isolation.
Types of Vitiligo
There are three different types of vitiligo depending upon the area of involvement. These are :
This is the most common variety where there is symmetrical pigment loss all over the body
Loss of skin pigment is confined to one side of the body and it is asymmetrical. Usually young people are affected and the condition stops after one to two years of progression.
In this variety the pigment loss is confined to few areas of the body and small areas are affected.
Pictures of Vitiligo
The pictures (photographs) of vitiligo have been sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Causes of Vitiligo
The exact cause of vitiligo is not known but there are many hypotheses regarding the cause. The natural skin pigment, melanin, is produced by melanocytes and the amount of melanin is responsible for our natural skin color. Vitiligo is related to some dysfunction relating to the melanocytes. Autoimmune diseases are thought to be the most common cause. Here the immune system mistakenly starts producing antibodies against the skin pigment-producing cells and subsequently destroying them.
Vitiligo is often seen in association with other autoimmune diseases like Addison’s disease, hyperthyroidism and pernicious anemia. Other than autoimmune diseases, it is believed that genetic defects, oxidative stress and viral infections are the other commonly proposed causes of vitiligo. Common risk factors include a family history of vitiligo, emotional stress and overexposure to the sun may lead to the appearance of depigmented patches in a susceptible person.
Cure and Treatment
There is currently no cure for vitiligo. Often there are new treatments that emerge which are sometimes touted as vitiligo cures. However, vitiligo patients should carefully assess these treatment options and first speak to a medical professional like a dermatologist before starting with any of these vitiligo ‘cures’.
In fact treatment is not often necessary for vitiligo unless the patient wishes to commence with treatment. IVitiligo may resolve on its own without any intervention. For other cases the treatment options that may be considered include :
- Topical application of steroid, immunomodulators and psoralen and UVA.
- Oral application of psoralen.
- Laser therapy.
- Skin grafting and blister grafting.
- Use of concealing make-up.