Vitiligo is a skin condition that occurs when melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that determines skin, eye and hair color, die or no longer function. It is characterized by the appearance of slowly enlarging white patches of irregular shapes on the skin.
Causes and symptoms
To date, the cause of vitiligo has not been definitively established. However, there are several different theories as to what causes vitiligo. The most widely accepted theory is that vitiligo is an autoimmune disease. Several studies, however, also suggest that it could be hereditary, the result of nutritional deficiencies, extreme trauma or excessive stress.
Typically, vitiligo can be identified by your doctor by the appearance of white patches alone, and special tests are therefore not usually necessary. Some doctors may want to see the differences in the color of your skin, and may use an ultraviolet lamp to do so. Doctors will also usually ask if you have relatives with the condition, or if you have suffered a sunburn or a bad rash on the affected area.
Vitiligo key terms
Autoimmune disease – a medical condition that occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.
Melanin: the natural pigment that determines our skin, hair and eye color, produced by cells known as melanocytes.
Melanocyte: The skin cell that produces the pigment melanin.
Depigmentation: The lightening of the skin due to the loss of color or pigment.
Phototherapy: The use of light, ultraviolet light in particular, for the treatment of certain medical conditions, vitiligo included
Pigmentation: The natural coloring of a person’s skin, hair, mucous membranes, and retina of the eye.
Sunburn: Any injury to the skin caused by the ultraviolet rays caused by the sun
While there is no known permanent cure for vitiligo, there are several treatments available that promise to stop the spread of the white patches. The more common treatments for vitiligo include phototherapy, the topical application of corticosteroid creams or ointments, skin grafts and depigmentation. Patients can also opt for natural treatments such as consuming foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals or taking health supplements, particularly vitamin B12. For patients who are suffering psychosocial symptoms due to their vitiligo, they would do well to get counseling or join a vitiligo support group that will help them come to terms with their condition.
Vitiligo is an unpredictable condition in the sense that its course varies from person to person. Some patients may experience repigmentation in affected areas, while others may see new white patches appear, even with treatment. There are patients whose vitiligo may completely stop, while in some cases, their depigmentation could get worse as time goes by. Some may even go through a total depigmentation of their skin.
Since no one knows exactly what causes vitiligo, there is no surefire way to prevent the occurrence of the disease. However, if the existing theories about the causes of the condition are to be believed, there are some things a person can do to prevent developing vitiligo. Boosting one’s immune system is one, and this can be done by making up for certain nutritional deficiencies, particularly that of vitamin B12. Since excessive stress is also being blamed for the condition, learning effective stress management techniques might also help. Avoid too much exposure to the sun as well, as sunburn is also suspected of triggering the appearance of those white patches.