Have you noticed spots of your skin that have lost their color? You may have vitiligo. Vitiligo is an uncommon and puzzling condition where your body’s skin loses its pigmentation.
Vitiligo might be hard to explain, but the simple facts of how it forms are relatively well-understood. The body’s immune system can make mistakes. In the case of vitiligo, the body’s immune response attacks melanocytes, which control the pigmentation of hair and skin. Basically, vitiligo appears as pale spots or blotches on the skin or hair.
Vitiligo usually appears symmetrically, meaning that patches tend to appear on both sides of the body. For example, if vitiligo appears on one arm, you can expect vitiligo to be on the other. This is because vitiligo usually forms in at least two “spots” at once. Vitiligo usually appears in small patches, but it can be widespread. No specific type of skin is more susceptible to vitiligo, but the loss of pigment is more visible on darker skin. Unlike some skin conditions, vitiligo doesn’t have a signature shape.
Vitiligo affects more than just your skin. If any hair follicles are on the affected skin, they will also lose their pigmentation. Dark body hair can become white in patches as melanin is destroyed. If vitiligo forms on your scalp, the skin beneath will lose its pigment as well, even if you don’t notice it.
Vitiligo is not contagious or caused by any environmental factors. Recent studies have shown that people who have a relative with vitiligo are more likely to develop vitiligo themselves. Vitiligo is relatively harmless, but affected skin is more susceptible to sun damage since melanin helps protect it. One common issue for people with vitiligo is sunburn. As with any type of sun damage vulnerability, you are more likely to develop skin cancer. Take standard precautions to protect your skin from the sun, and especially protect skin without pigment. Wear clothes with high UPF, use a sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or more, and avoid exposure to sunlight when possible.
Since vitiligo is most likely caused by an improper immune response, it can occasionally signal other health problems. A significant number of people who have an autoimmune disorder develop other autoimmune disorders in the future. Scientists believe this is because the body’s immune system continues to degenerate causing it to deem other substances as foreign.
There are two major bodily functions that vitiligo can impact. Skin near the eyes and inside of the ear can cause damage to your sight and hearing. In some cases of vitiligo in the eyes, vision change or permanent vision deterioration have occurred. Total hearing loss has been documented by vitiligo that affects the inner ear. These two areas are the most at risk for damage because of their sensitivity and proximity to skin. Thankfully, vitiligo very rarely causes issues with your eyes or ears, but the risk is ever-present.
While some may think that seeking treatment for vitiligo implies a certain level of vanity, we know that it can cause health problems. As we’ve seen, getting a diagnosis is important when you suspect vitiligo might be to blame for your skin discoloration. There are other conditions that look like vitiligo and that determination is best made by your dermatologist. A medical professional will be able to make sure that vitiligo is to blame and not another skin condition before exploring treatment options. Most people with vitiligo lead normal lives, and many have embraced their unique condition as a fact of life. You may have seen famous supermodels with vitiligo making the news.
Everyone is different, and if vitiligo is impacting your sense of self or threatening your health, treatment is available. There is no cure for vitiligo, but dermatological technologies like laser therapy offer people with vitiligo a chance at restoring their natural skin tone. There are other treatments that you can explore as well, like corticosteroid ointments that protect melanin from the body’s immune response.
Ultimately, vitiligo should not put your life on hold. Know your options for living with vitiligo, and keep track of where it may spread to prevent damage to your vision or hearing.
If you think you may have vitiligo or are ready for treatment, reach out to a New England Dermatologist you can trust.