Understanding Vitiligo, Its Causes, and Treatments

 Understanding Vitiligo, Its Causes, and Treatments

Vitiligo is a mysterious skin condition in which patches of skin lose pigmentation and lighten over time. This occurs when the melanin in our skin breaks down resulting in pale patches even in dark complexions. While no particular race or ethnicity is more susceptible to vitiligo, it is more noticeable on darker skin tones.

Vitiligo often appears symmetrically on the body, meaning it usually affects skin on both sides of the body. For example, if it appeared on one of your knees, it’s most likely on the other. The shape of the mark can be different, but it will usually appear in two spots at once. There is no limit to how much of your skin vitiligo can impact, and it can appear anywhere, even inside your mouth or the iris of your eyes. Vitiligo can also affect your hair. As the skin loses its dark pigment due to vitiligo, affected hair follicles lose their color as well.

Vitiligo is not contagious, but scientists do believe that it may be hereditary. Research has shown that individuals with vitiligo in their family are more prone to develop the condition. Though vitiligo can appear suddenly, it is not life-threatening.

Causes and Symptoms of Vitiligo

As we’ve mentioned, the causes of vitiligo are not well-understood. The primary theory for what causes vitiligo is related to how pigment is lost. For reasons unknown, vitiligo occurs when the body mistakenly attacks melanocytes, the cells which give skin and hair their color. Vitiligo is often categorized as an autoimmune disease, which is any disease where the body’s natural immunities attack naturally occurring, benign cells.

While vitiligo is often thought of as a cosmetic condition, it can be harmful to the body. For example, vitiligo in the inner ear can cause hearing loss. If vitiligo affects your eyes, it can disturb tear production or cause vision changes. Vitiligo can also provide insight into another autoimmune diseases in the body. Since melanin does offer some protection, skin affected by vitiligo is extremely susceptible to sun damage. People with dark skin who did not to worry sunburns previously will need to apply sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) to protect the area.

Even though vitiligo is generally to blame for skin color loss in patches, there are other conditions that can look similar. A trained dermatologist can assess your skin and determine if vitiligo is the cause of your pigmentation loss.

The Stigma of Vitiligo

Unfortunately, much like other cosmetic or aesthetic conditions, vitiligo can also be mentally debilitating. People with vitiligo are more likely to feel depressed and struggle with self confidence. Vitiligo can draw curious eyes or rude comments from ignorant passers-by. Due to its life-long impact, people may struggle for years to hide or ignore patches of vitiligo. When seeking treatment for your vitiligo, your dermatologist may also refer you to a therapist who can help with any self-image problems vitiligo may have caused. Strides are being made in various communities and nations to destigmatize vitiligo and cosmetic skin conditions. People without vitiligo are being exposed to it more readily thanks to fashion models and other influencers with the condition.

Diagnosing and Treating Vitiligo

Vitiligo treatment has come a long way. While there is not a cure, there are a great deal of treatments available to reduce the appearance of vitiligo. For patients struggling with vitiligo, our experienced dermatologists will employ a blue light device to determine if your loss of pigment is the result of vitiligo. In some cases, a biopsy of the affected area may need to be performed to determine if vitiligo is the culprit.

If your dermatologist determines that vitiligo is responsible for your pigmentation loss, they can offer you a variety of treatment options. Corticosteroid creams are the most common topical treatment for vitiligo. This prescription strength cream helps the skin’s pigment by producing cells used to fight back against the damage caused by the immune response. Other, stronger immunosuppressants can be prescribed to treat your vitiligo if other treatments don’t help. About half of the people who treat their vitiligo with corticosteroids see marked improvement in their skin’s pigmentation.

As is the case with many skin conditions, light technology has hastened the development of vitiligo treatment solutions. Phototherapy (light therapy) and laser therapy both can be used to treat patches of vitiligo. These therapies work by concentrating light onto the pale areas of skin, returning color to the treated areas. Since the body’s natural response to ultraviolet light is to increase melanin production, this process jump-starts and accelerates the process. Your dermatologist will develop a course of treatment that works best for you.

Though vitiligo is often considered a cosmetic imperfection, it can affect more than how you look and feel about yourself. If you suspect you’re dealing with vitiligo, reach out to your New England dermatologist today. The right treatment can help prevent vitiligo from affecting your daily life.

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