What you need to know about vitiligo

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There may be a host of reasons why you are here reading up on vitiligo. For example, you have the condition or you or a loved one may have been recently diagnosed with vitiligo.  Perhaps you’ve had the condition for a while and just want to keep updated with the latest research and feel part of a like-minded, understanding community. 

But, first things first…

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo, also called ‘leucoderma’ is a long-term skin condition that causes an area of the skin to lose its colour (pigmentation), which results in the area looking white or pink in appearance.

Vitiligo can actually appear anywhere on the body, but it’s more likely to develop in some of the following areas:

  • Eyes, nostrils, belly button, elbows, and genital areas.
  • Occasionally found inside of the mouth.
  • Areas of the body that have folds, such as the knees and elbows.

Because pigment cells give colour to hair as well as skin, some people with vitiligo may notice early onset greying of the hair or a loss of colour on the lips.  

There is no prejudice in terms of who can develop the condition. Therefore, it can affect anyone, whatever their skin colour or ethnic origin, but will be more visually prominent in those with darker skin. People with fairer skin colour may not even realise that their skin is not making pigment.

Although vitiligo can start at any age, 95% of people who have vitiligo develop the condition before their 40th birthday.

Vitiligo myth-busting 

A common question in terms of vitiligo is whether it’s contagious. The short answer is no, you can’t catch it and you certainly can’t pass it on by touching someone.

Still have concerns? Well, here are a couple of other myths that need busting:

  • Vitiligo is not linked to cancer, albinism or leprosy.
  • Vitiligo is not an infectious disease.
  • Vitiligo is not a physically harmful condition.  

Now that we have addressed the myths surrounding vitiligo, let’s move onto some more facts.

Types of vitiligo

There are three known types of vitiligo; they are dependent on how many patches someone has and where they might present on the body: 

1. Focal vitiligo: Found in patients with a few vitiligo spots in a single area.

2. Segmental vitiligo: The most unusual form of vitiligo where patches are generally found on one side of the body and nowhere else.

3. Generalised vitiligo (aka non-segmental vitiligo): Found in patients with many patches all over the body. They tend to affect the right and left sides of the body in a symmetrical pattern, almost like a mirror image. This is the most common type of vitiligo and is also known as ‘universal’ or ‘complete’ vitiligo.

Is vitiligo hereditary?

Although vitiligo is not strictly associated with family genetics, it can run in families. In fact, approximately 30% of people with the condition will have a family history. Therefore, children will not get vitiligo strictly on the grounds that a parent has it. However, they do stand a higher chance of developing the condition.

What causes vitiligo?

Why vitiligo occurs is not currently known. It is thought to be linked to autoimmune diseases, which result in the immune system attacking its own healthy tissues in error, instead of foreign cells such as viruses or bacteria. The first signs may be in an area of the skin that has received extensive sun damage.

Approximately 15-25% of people with vitiligo  may also be affected by one other autoimmune disease such as hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, pernicious anemia, Addison disease. 

Is vitiligo linked to other conditions?

It’s generally thought that around 15 to 25 percent of people who have vitiligo are also affected by at least one other autoimmune condition. Most commonly,  type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, pernicious anemia, Addison disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, celiac disease, Crohn disease, or ulcerative colitis. Many people with vitiligo also find a correlation between eczema and their patches.

Is there a way to prevent vitiligo?

There is no way you can predict where, when or even if you are going to get vitiligo. And as we don’t know why vitiligo occurs, there is no way it can be prevented.  It is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetics and environmental conditions, which can appear at any age. However, it is thought that several factors can contribute to its onset:

  • Stress.
  • Damage to the skin due to critical sunburn or a cut(s).
  • Heredity – it may run in families.
  • Hormonal changes in the body, for example, adolescence.
  • Exposure to some chemicals.
  • Liver and/or kidney issues.

Products that contain phenol (also known as carbolic acid or phenic acid) can be possible triggers of vitiligo. These products include:

  • Adhesives                                                                   
  • Deodorants
  • Disinfectants
  • Duplicating paper
  • Germicidal detergents
  • Insecticides
  • Latex gloves
  • Paints
  • Photographic chemicals
  • Printing inks
  • Soap antioxidants
  • Synthetic oils
  • Varnish and lacquer resins

Signs or symptoms

It may start as a small white spot that differs from the normal skin tone, but, as time goes on, this spot will become paler until it turns white. How the patches develop are wholly unpredictable. For some, they can develop and expand slowly over time, while for others it will never progress much further than a spot or two. Although rare, in some cases, the patches will develop rapidly. In some exceptionally rare cases some people have even experienced ‘spontaneous re-pigmentation’ of the skin.

There aren’t that many symptoms associated with vitiligo. Some have described an itching sensation caused by skin inflammation, resulting in a slight red tone plus soreness and dryness. One thing to also consider is that although vitiligo symptoms will present both physically and visually they can also affect someone’s emotional wellbeing due to the stress involved with an ongoing condition.  

Seeking a diagnosis and what to expect

The best way to know if you have vitiligo is to go and see your doctor. You can even prepare for your visit by doing the following: 

  • Reviewing your family medical history.
  • Making notes concerning any stressful events that have occurred in your life. 
  • Making a list of chemicals you may have come into contact with. 
  • Considering taking a friend or family member with you for support. 
  • Preparing a list of questions to ask your doctor. 

During your visit, your doctor will ask several questions concerning various areas of your life including family history and whether you have had any injuries. If available, your patches will be examined using a ‘Woods Lamp’ (ultraviolet lamp) which will assist in narrowing down and eliminating the possibility of it being another skin condition. 

Receiving your diagnosis – What now?

Being diagnosed with vitiligo can be highly emotional and stressful. No doubt you’ll have a million and one questions rushing through your head. The first thing to remember is that you are by no means alone and there are many groups and information sources out there (and on The Vitiligo Society website) to help you.

Regarding treatments, there are a variety of methods that may help restore pigmentation, although the outcome may not be permanent or even stop the spread of patches. 

You may decide that you don’t want or need to try treatment methods. You can discuss the best options with your doctor or dermatologist. 

An alternative method to concealing white patches on your skin is to use camouflage. Skin camouflages are longer-lasting waterproof creams, designed to blend your vitiligo patches to your natural skin tone.  Applications to the face can last 12-18 hours and 2-3 days if applied to the body. This may help if the white spots are causing you to feel self-conscious. 

Is there a vitiligo cure?

Currently, there is no known cure for vitiligo. Ongoing research seeks to change this in order to provide patients worldwide with more options in how to manage or treat this condition. Check out our research page for current studies. 

Life with vitiligo

As mentioned before, vitiligo is not life-threatening and for some, embracing their new life with vitiligo is not a problem.

That being said, some people find that vitiligo negatively impacts their quality of life and self-esteem. For example, you may not like the appearance of your skin and feel like it affects social interactions, or you may find it upsetting no matter how large or small the patches. Also, some children may experience bullying for looking different.

Don’t ignore your feelings: keep talking about them, this is all normal. Do seek help if you feel that your condition is having a negative impact on your emotional and mental well being. It is fine to feel sad and upset, as, in some cases, it is a big change. 

There are also some additional things that you may need to consider more carefully when you have vitiligo, in particular in relation to seeking cosmetic treatments that may damage or irritate your skin. We have written an number of articles to help you navigate this:

Yes, vitiligo can be challenging, but the condition does not have to get in the way of your hope and dreams – everyday people are living healthy active lives with no restraints. 

For instance, Top Canadian model Winnie Harlow is a prime example of how vitiligo isn’t a barrier to worldwide success. Since appearing on American’s Next Top Model, Winnie has been gracing international runways and magazines alike. 

Golden Globe Award winning actor Jon Hamm’s vitiligo was brought on by stress during the filming of the pilot for Mad Men. This hasn’t stopped this famous actor going on to receive a multitude of nominations and awards in his ever expanding career. 

Just remember, armed with the right help, support and information, there is no reason why you can’t carve your own path to self-acceptance.