What is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a skin condition wherein white patches start to appear on different parts of the body. People have melanin on their body — the pigment that gives the skin, hair, and eyes of every individual their color. Vitiligo occurs when the so-called melanin (or melanocytes) found within the cells dysfunction and the pigments start to die. The condition can start on any part, even inside the mouth, the hair, and the eyes. However, the rate and extent of loss are still to be determined by experts.
Vitiligo is not race nor color-specific; it can affect people with all types of skin. Unfortunately, it can be more noticeable with people of darker pigmentation. The good news is that this isn’t contagious or lethal. Though it cannot be cured, those affected by vitiligo may undergo treatment that improves the appearance of the skin. Sufferers can also seek professional help for the stress it causes them.
Vitiligo Signs and Symptoms
Vitiligo can start at any age. Majority of the sufferers, however, start to see signs and symptoms before the age of 20. Dermatologists often call this “depigmentation” and advise their patients to take note of the following so that they can say what type of vitiligo the sufferers have:
- Patches or discoloration that start on one or more parts of the body
- Premature graying of the hair on the head, face, body, and even on the genitals
- Color loss on the tissues that line the mouth and nose
- Changes in color on the eye retina
More specifically, there are 2 different types of Vitiligo as discussed below:
Type 1: Segmental Vitiligo
- Patches that appear on only one side of the body.
- Possible loss of hair color.
- Depigmentation often starts at a young age.
- Patches only progress within a year and then the symptoms stop.
- Often referred to by experts as unilateral vitiligo.
Type 2: Non-Segmental Vitiligo
- This is the more common type.
- Patches appear on both sides of the body (such as hands, arms, legs, and knees).
- May begin rapidly, then slow down, and once again continues in a cycle.
- Color loss eventually covers larger areas on the body.
- Often referred to by experts as bilateral vitiligo.
Vitiligo Causes and Risk Factors
Though vitiligo is not contagious, this skin disorder can either be hereditary or can be triggered when a person is exposed to the following:
- The UV rays of the sun
- Extreme stress
- Industrial chemicals such as detergent, ink, toothpaste, and perfume
The primary care physician may require the patient to see a dermatologist. The expert then looks into the following:
- The family and medical history because heredity plays a big part in vitiligo.
- Relevant information about the patient’s lifestyle that may have caused anxiety or stress.
- Recent exposure to chemicals or the sun that may have resulted to burns or rashes.
- Medications and supplements that the patient is currently taking.
- Itching on any part of the body.
- A skin biopsy to look into the specific form of the disease.
- A blood sample to see which type of vitiligo the patient has.
Moreover, people diagnosed with vitiligo can seek further medical help because they can be at higher risk for the following:
- Psychological stress
- Skin cancer
- Painful sunburns
- Hearing loss
- Skin rashes that appear due to the treatments needed
Treatment Options for Vitiligo
Fortunately, there are numerous treatments available for vitiligo. There are ways to restore color and even out skin tone. Patients may opt for different methods because they may experience serious side effects such as stress, rashes, and allergies.
First and foremost, the dermatologist may require patients to first work on the appearance of the skin, such as applying self-tanners and concealers. For those who want to go further than the superficial form of treatment, the doctor may also suggest drug therapy, but oftentimes, they may have to try different kinds of help to see which one works best for the individual.
- Creams – Vitiligo cannot be stopped, but there are creams that are able to control inflammation. A topical cream with corticosteroid can help the skin regain its color as long as this is applied during the early stages. Unfortunately, the cream does have side effects such as skin thinning. Lines may also start to appear with prolonged usage.
- Further Depigmentation – Monobenzone is applied to the unaffected areas twice daily. This cream gradually lightens the skin to match the discolored areas. The doctor may require the patients to do this for more than 9 months.
- Ointments that contain tacrolimus or pimecrolimus may also work. These are better for patients with only small areas of depigmentation. It is believed that they cause fewer side effects. Even so, experts from the FDA warn against its effects on those suffering from skin cancer or lymphoma.
- Vitamins – Dovonex, a topical form of vitamin D can be used. Again, patients must be aware of the side effects such as itching and rashes.
- Medication and Light Therapy – A drug called psoralen is used with light therapy in order to regain skin color. The caveat is that the said drug makes the skin more sensitive to heat and light. Hence, patients experience redness during therapy. Sunblock is extremely helpful at this time, especially during the first 12 months of treatment.
- Surgery – Patients can also choose to go under the knife using the following methods:
- Skin grafting – This is recommended when light therapy doesn’t work. A surgeon removes portions of unaffected areas and attach them to the depigmented skin.
- Blister grafting – This is when the surgeon creates blisters on the pigmented skin by suctioning the area. The blisters are then transplanted to depigmented areas. Unlike skin grafting, the risk for scars is less.
- Tattooing – Color is implanted on the skin. The tricky part comes in finding the right skin color because this is quite difficult. Exposure to the ink used may also trigger another attack of vitiligo. More importantly, tattoos eventually fade, which means that the discoloration can eventually be apparent again.
- Alternative Medicine – Studies show that gingko biloba may help, but findings are still limited and there is no solid proof that this supplement can fully restore skin color.
While vitiligo has no cure, health experts suggest that people susceptible to it stay away from the sun, avoid tattoos, and try not to enter into stressful situations.