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Vitiligo and loss of skin colour

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a long-term skin condition that causes white patches to develop as a result of a lack of the substance melanin that helps to give skin its colour.

Vitiligo can affect any part of the body, but it usually seen on areas exposed to the sun, such as the neck, face and hands.

Picture of Vitiligo on Neck

Image: Color Atlas of Pediatric Dermatology

Causes of vitiligo

Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its characteristic colour. Vitiligo is caused by a loss of pigment in the skin, due to destruction of pigment-forming cells known as melanocytes. The exact cause of the destruction of the melanocytes is not known. One possible explanation might be that the body's immune system destroys the cells, as in other autoimmune conditions. Although vitiligo affects all races equally, it is more noticeable in dark-skinned people.

Risk factors for vitiligo

It is estimated that about one in every 100 people in the UK develops vitiligo. In most cases, vitiligo develops early in life, between the ages of 10 and 30. 95% of those affected will develop the disorder before the age of 40. Both men and women are equally likely to develop vitiligo. Vitiligo may run in families; those with a family history of vitiligo or premature greying of the hair are at increased risk of developing vitiligo. Other risk factors that increase one's chances of developing vitiligo include having autoimmune diseases, such as autoimmune thyroid disease (including Hashimoto's disease).

Symptoms of vitiligo

Symptoms of vitiligo include an often rapid pigment loss in several areas of the skin. The initial appearance of the white patches can be followed by a stable period without any progression of the condition. Later on, further cycles of pigment loss and stability may be observed. Vitiligo commonly affects areas on the skin that are exposed to sun, body folds (such as armpits), previous sites of injury, areas around moles, or areas around body orifices (openings). It is rare for pigment to return once the white patches have developed. Vitiligo can also affect the eyes and hair.

Diagnosis and treatment of vitiligo

Your doctor can usually diagnose vitiligo during a physical examination. There is no known way to prevent or cure vitiligo. However, several methods, including cosmetics, re-pigmentation using UV light therapy, steroid creams and other medical treatments, depigmentation of unaffected skin areas, and skin grafting, can be used to improve the appearance of skin severely affected by vitiligo.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 24, 2016

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