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What is Vitiligo?

By S. Mithra
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Vitiligo affects the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes by destroying cells that produce the body's pigment. The most obvious results of this condition are white splotches in the areas where the skin isn't producing enough pigment. This is not a serious condition, but research physicians are still investigating methods for correct diagnosis, treatments, co-existent diseases, and psychological side effects.

Our hair, eyes, and skin are given color by a pigment called melanin. This material is constantly being broken down and replaced, so it must be replenished by cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes manufacture and distribute the correct amount of melanin, but for people with vitiligo, this process gets disrupted.

As scientists have found, this disorder destroys melanocytes for unknown reasons. They have categorized it as an auto-immune disorder because no external cause seems to be responsible for it. In auto-immune disorders, your body mistakes itself for an enemy intruder and declares war on those "enemy" cells. Your malfunctioning immune system continues attacking your own cells; in this case, melanocytes.

The most common symptom of vitiligo is light or white patches of skin anywhere on your body. These are commonly found on areas that receive a lot of sunlight, like your face, back of the neck, forearms, hands, and feet. They can also affect other areas, such as underneath your arms and genitals. For the most part, the symptoms are the most serious aspect of this condition, and doctors direct their treatment toward this aspect.

If you suspect you have this disorder, make sure to go to your physician for an official diagnosis and consultation. You can expect a physical exam of your skin from a dermatologist. At this stage in research, there are a number of different courses of treatment, ranging from light therapy to oral medication to strong sunscreen.

Since this disorder seems to affect young people more than older people, physicians cite the psychological effects of the disease as a major issue. A person with a visible difference in skin coloring, called depigmentation, may be influenced to see their body as unhealthy, disabled, or unattractive. Doctors encourage young people to see a psychologist to help with this reaction.

Vitiligo may point your physician to another coexisting condition often seen with depigmentation. Anemia, lupus, and hyperthyroidism are often found in people with vitiligo. Genetics are also probably responsible, since the condition seems to run in families. Unfortunately, the condition usually gets worse as time goes on. However, it is certainly not contagious.

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Discussion Comments
By medicchristy — On Jul 10, 2010

@cmsmith10:Sunburn, which is considered a type of trauma to the skin, can lead to vitiligo. Normally, however, the white spots wouldn’t appear so soon after the sun exposure. It usually takes a little longer to see vitiligo spots.

You might want to ask your doctor about another condition called leucoderma. This can also be caused by sunburn.

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 10, 2010

After spending a whole day at the racetrack, I was sunburned badly. After a couple of days, white spots started popping up on my skin. A friend told me that it could possibly be vitiligo. Does anyone have any information that could back that up?

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