Vitiligo Symptoms, Causes, And Treatments

Woman with vitiligo

What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a disease that results in a loss of skin color. People suffering from vitiligo have blotches of white on their skin in various, unpredictable patterns.  It can affect any part of your body and can also affect the inside of your mouth, hair, and even the color of your retinas. Although the condition can lead to low self-confidence, it is not life-threatening or contagious. While it is most noticeable in people with darker skin, anybody, with any skin type, is susceptible to developing it.

Symptoms

Symptoms of vitiligo include white patches on the skin caused by the loss of pigment. This de-pigmentation can be on the scalp, face, hair, beard, eyebrows, eyelashes, and any other part of the skin that is exposed to sun. Most commonly, it develops on the face, lips, feet, arms, and hands first.

When de-pigmentation happens in hair, the result is whitening or graying of the hair.

Who is Affected

Anyone of any race and ethnicity can develop vitiligo. It most often develops between the ages of 20 and 30; however, people with autoimmune diseases may have an increased risk. Diseases such as vitamin B-12 deficiency, anemia, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, and Addison’s disease can put the individual at a higher risk of developing vitiligo. People who are extremely sensitive to sunlight are at a higher risk of developing vitiligo as well.

Causes

There are specific cells within the body call melanocytes that produce the skin pigment melanin. Melanin is what gives the various parts of our bodies color: the eyes, hair, lips, skin, etc. Vitiligo causes these melanin-producing cells to cease production of melanin and/or die, causing white patches of skin or graying hair.

Even though doctors aren’t sure why these cells stop producing melanin or die, they believe vitiligo may be related to:

  • An autoimmune disorder that attacks the skin
  • Genetics (family history of the disease)
  • A bad sunburn
  • Exposure to industrial-strength chemicals
  • Stress

How to Diagnose Vitiligo

The first clue that you might have vitiligo is noticeable loss of pigment or color in your skin, hair, or eyes. See a doctor immediately as a professional is the only one that can make a proper diagnosis. There is no cure for vitiligo, but there are treatments that can halt the disease and also possibly restore color to the affected parts of your body.

The doctor will ask about your medical history including:

  • Does anyone else in your close family have vitiligo?
  • Was your hair graying before 35?
  • Do you have a physical illness?
  • Are you under an exorbitant amount of stress?
  • Did you suffer from sunburn, rash or some other type of skin trauma 1-3 months before the onset of the loss of pigmentation?
  • Do you or does anyone in your family suffer from an autoimmune disease such as diabetes or anemia?
  • What is your level of sun sensitivity?

The doctor will then attempt to rule out other possible diseases such as psoriasis or dermatitis. A small sample of the affected skin may be sent to a lab, and blood work might be taken to determine thyroid function. The doctor may also perform an eye exam in an effort to find inflammation. Ultraviolet light shone onto the skin via a special lamp may also help determine the existence of vitiligo.

How to Treat Vitiligo

A variety of medications and therapies can be used to help treat vitiligo. Unfortunately, it is often a game of trial and error to determine what works best for each individual. Sometimes, results may not be noticeable for months, and certain treatments and medications can have serious side effects.

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The first treatment attempt might be the use of self-tanning products or special makeup that may help blend patches of decreased melanin with the rest of your skin. Even though this is not a reversal of the condition, it might be the best practice for some as it has virtually no side effects.

Therapies used for treating Vitiligo

  • Light therapy combined with psoralen. In an effort to return color to the de-pigmented skin, a substance called psoralen combined with photochemotherapy may be used. Repeated treatments are often needed and it might take 3x a week up to one year for satisfying results to take place. The problem with light therapy is that UV light damages tissue like human skin. So in an effort to overcome vitiligo, you are also damaging and aging your skin.
  • De-pigmentation of the remaining skin. This is used when vitiligo has de-pigmented most of the skin on your body, and other chemical treatments and surgery have not worked. A de-pigmenting agent is used to bleach the remaining skin to blend in with your vitiligo-afflicted areas of skin. Side effects include dry skin, itching, swelling, and redness. If undergoing de-pigmentation, you will always need to limit your sun exposure because you will be extremely sensitive to UV rays for the rest of your life.

Medications used for treating Vitiligo

  • If you only have small patchy areas, especially on your neck and face, applying ointments that contain calcineurin inhibitors or tacrolimus can be effective in returning some color. However, the FDA does warn of a possible link between these types of ointments and the development of skin cancer and lymphoma.
  • Anti-inflammatory creams such as corticosteroids can be used especially at the first signs of the disease. It might take many months before results are noticeable. Side effects include streaks or lines on your skin and skin thinning.

Surgeries used as treatment for Vitiligo

  • Blister grafting. Blisters on your pigmented skin are created with suction. The pigmented, blistered skin is then removed and transplanted onto the de-pigmented areas of your skin. There are risks to this procedure, including instigating a new patch of vitiligo where the blister was created, causing a “cobblestone” appearance of your skin, and failure of your skin to take on the new color.
  • Tattoo (micropigmentation). Most effective in people with darker skin tones, the doctor uses a surgical instrument to place pigment within your de-pigmented skin. The potential for triggering another patch of vitiligo is high with this procedure; it also might be very difficult for the doctor to exactly match the color of your skin.
  • Skin grafting. Most oftenly used on people who have small patches of vitiligo, skin grafting involves taking small pieces of normal (pigmented) skin and reattaching them to areas of the whitened blotchy skin. Risks of this procedure are similar to blister grafting, include the possibility that the re-coloring will not take, scarring, infection, and a cobblestone appearance of your skin.

Sunsafe Rx

The Sunsafe Rx supplement can help extremely light-sensitive people resist some of the damage caused by sunlight. Sunsafe Rx is made with ingredients from foods and plants that have been clinically shown to protect your skin and eyes from UV rays.

For protection of vitiligo-affected skin

Melanin protects your skin from sun exposure. Yet people with vitiligo have patches of skin without melanin, leaving them vulnerable. All the necessary precautions about sun exposure, and the ways to avoid sun damage, apply. Sunsafe Rx can also help. It’s a capsule, taken orally, that is made with natural ingredients clinically shown to help your skin defend against sun damage. This is crucial for people with patches of skin without melanin.

During light therapy for vitiligo

Sunsafe Rx can also help your skin defend itself during light therapy. Because this therapy is damaging to your skin and body in general, Sunsafe Rx can also help give you a little bit of protection while undergoing UV treatments.

How to Prevent Vitiligo

Despite long-held beliefs about vitiligo, dark-skinned people are not innately protected against the condition. Since virtually anyone can develop vitiligo, it is vitally important that everyone protect themselves.

  • Protect your skin and eyes from both UV rays from the sun as well as artificial sources. This includes wearing sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher and reapplying after sweating and/or swimming, using Sunsafe Rx, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding tanning beds and sunlamps. The Sunsafe Rx capsule contains a number of antioxidants that, when taken over time, enables your body to better defend itself against UV rays.
  • Avoid getting tattoos (except as used for treatment of vitiligo). Vitiligo can develop from any type of trauma to the skin, and tattoos are considered traumatic.

Prognosis/Outlook

For those who develop vitiligo, it is important to note that the condition is in no way life threatening. It does, however, tend to bring with it a sense of lowered self-esteem and self-confidence because of the diseases’ unappealing affect on the skin. While there are treatments that can be implemented in the form of surgery and medication, there is no real cure; treatments may take a long time to work effectively and there is no guarantee that vitiligo will not reappear.

Actively protecting yourself from the sun on a daily basis will decrease your risk of developing the condition.

Summary

Vitiligo is a disease that causes melanin-producing cells (melanocytes) to either die or stop producing melanin. Anyone of any race and age can develop it, there is no cure, and whether or not treatments will be efficacious is unpredictable.

The symptoms of the disease include loss of skin pigment resulting in blotchy white patches on the face, arms, feet, hands, and legs. It may also manifest in hair that prematurely grays or whitens, and other areas on the surface of the body such as the lips and retina losing their color.

While anyone of any age or race may be affected by vitiligo, there are a few factors that will increase an individual’s risk of developing it. These risk factors include a family history of the disease, a pre-existing autoimmune disorder, sensitivity to sunlight, and being between the ages of 20 and 30.

Researchers and doctors are not certain about what causes vitiligo. Triggers include exposure to UV rays (sunlight) that results in sunburn, autoimmune diseases, stress, and exposure to harsh chemicals. These triggers cause melanin-producing cells to die or stop producing melanin, resulting in blotchy white skin.

To diagnose vitiligo, you should visit your doctor to answer questions regarding your family medical history, chronic diseases, personal tolerance to sunlight, stress levels, etc. The doctor may also take blood work and/or a biopsy of the affected skin. An eye examination may also be conducted to look for inflammation and de-pigmentation.

There are several ways to treat vitiligo, although there are no guarantees of effectiveness. Therapy treatments include light therapy combined with psoralen, or depigmentation of your remaining pigmented skin (in some extremely severe cases). Medication therapy includes using anti-inflammatory creams such as corticosteroids, as well as ointments that contain calcineurin inhibitors or tacrolimus—although there are FDA warnings against using these two medications. Surgeries available for treatment of vitiligo include blister grafting, skin grafting, and tattooing.

People who have vitiligo are extremely sensitive to sunlight. Reducing the risk of developing vitiligo can be accomplished via diligently protecting your skin from the sun. This includes limiting sun exposure, wearing protective clothing, and using Sunsafe Rx.

Despite the fact that there isn’t a cure for vitiligo, the outlook for people with the condition is good. For those who don’t wish to undergo formal treatments, concealer makeup may be used to help hide visible signs of the condition.

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