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Overview of Vitiligo

Vitiligo is a chronic (long-lasting) disorder that causes patches of skin to lose pigment or color. This happens when melanocytes – skin cells that make pigment – are attacked and destroyed, causing the skin to turn a milky-white color.

There are two types of vitiligo:

  • Nonsegmental or generalized vitiligo is the most common type. It happens when the white patches appear symmetrically on both sides of your body, such as on both hands or both knees. This type of vitiligo can have rapid loss of color or pigment and tends to cover a large area.
  • Segmental vitiligo is much less common and happens when the white patches are only on one segment or side of your body, such as a leg, one side of the face, or arm. This type of vitiligo often begins at an early age and progresses for about 1 to 2 years and then usually stops.

The cause of vitiligo is unknown, but research suggests that vitiligo may be an autoimmune disease. The autoimmune system works throughout your body to fight off and defend your body from viruses, bacteria, and infection. In people with autoimmune diseases, the immune cells attack the body’s own healthy tissues by mistake. People with vitiligo may be more likely to develop other autoimmune disorders.

A person with vitiligo occasionally may have family members who also have the disease. There is no cure for vitiligo, but treatment may help skin tone appear more even.

Who Gets Vitiligo?

Anyone can get vitiligo, and it can develop at any age. However, for many people with vitiligo, the white patches begin to appear before age 20, and can start in early childhood.

Vitiligo seems to be more common in people who have a family history of the disorder or who have certain autoimmune diseases, including:

Symptoms of Vitiligo

The main symptom of vitiligo is loss of natural color or pigment, called depigmentation. The depigmented patches can appear anywhere on your body and can affect:

  • Skin, which develops milky-white patches, usually on the hands, feet, arms, and face. However, the patches can appear anywhere.
  • Hair, which can turn white in areas where the skin is losing pigment. This can happen on the scalp, eyebrow, eyelash, and beard.
  • Mucous membranes, such as the inside of your mouth or nose.

People with vitiligo can also develop:

  • Low self-esteem or a poor self-image from concerns about appearance, which can affect quality of life.
  • Uveitis, a general term that describes inflammation or swelling in the eye.
  • Inflammation in the ear.

Causes of Vitiligo

The exact cause of vitiligo is not fully understood. Scientists believe that it may be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the melanocytes.  In addition, researchers continue to study how family history and genes may play a role in causing vitiligo.

Finally, sometimes an event – such as a sunburn, emotional distress, or exposure to a chemical – can trigger vitiligo or make it worse.