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Vitiligo – Truths and misrepresentations

 Posted on 13th July 2016  4 minute read

Vitiligo is a subject which generates a plethora of myths, half-truths and uncertainties. You only have to type vitiligo into a search engine to find a host of herbal remedies, unusual treatments and miraculous cures which often seek to exploit the anxieties of sufferers. Even in the medical world, neither diagnosis nor prognosis is consistent. Consequently, many false assumptions have grown up around vitiligo. This article takes a number of common opinions and misconceptions and assesses their validity.

Vitamins can help with repigmentation

There is no evidence from clinical trials that taking vitamin supplements can repigment areas of vitiligo or prevent new areas from appearing. However some research has shown that the outcome of some treatments may be improved with the addition of certain vitamins.

Eating ‘white foods’ (such as onions) can make vitiligo worse

There is absolutely no evidence for this. However, a healthy balanced diet is as important for someone with vitiligo as anyone else.

Carrots and orange foods can help vitiligo

Not true. Carotenoids are chemicals found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (such as carrots), some of which are precursors of vitamin A. If consumed in large quantities they can temporarily give the skin an orange hue, but it is unlikely this would improve the appearance of vitiligo to any significant extent as it will also affect normal skin, therefore doing little to mask any difference in skin colour.

Copper bracelets can help in the treatment of vitiligo

There is absolutely no medical evidence to support this.

There is more than one type of vitiligo

Typically vitiligo affects particular areas of skin such as the hands and feet, around the eyes, mouth and ears or in a more generalised pattern (usually fairly symmetrically). Occasionally, particularly in children, asymmetrical blocks of vitiligo can occur. This is known as segmental vitiligo. The treatments you ar offered may vary depending on the site and extent of your vitiligo, but are essentially the same whether it is the generalised or segmental type.

Vitiligo can affect anyone at any stage of their life

Yes, this is true, although around half of cases first show signs of vitiligo in childhood or adolescence.

Vitiligo is a symptom of other medical problems

Not true, but people with vitiligo are at a slightly increased risk of developing other auto-immune diseases, such as thyroid disease, alopecia areata or pernicious anaemia. However, the absolute risk of someone with vitiligo having another autoimmune disease is actually quite small.

Some people have been known to repigment spontaneously

It is not uncommon for patches of vitiligo to spontaneously repigment, but total repigmentation is rare.

Vitiligo is harder to treat the longer you have had it

In general terms, this appears to be true. However, it is always worthwhile treating any patch of vitiligo regardless of duration, since sometimes even ver long standing patches may improve.

Members of my family are also likely to have vitiligo

If you have vitiligo there is a 6% chance your siblings will have it too, rising to almost 25% if you have an identical twin. The risk seems to be greater with earlier onset vitiligo. Most people with vitiligo, however, do not have anyone within their immediate family with the condition.

Some people can be “cured” of vitiligo

This is not true. Established treatments can have a very good effect in repigmenting the skin, sometimes completely. However, at present there are no treatments that influence the future course of the disease and that can prevent new areas from depigmenting. Sometimes people make claims abou ‘cures’, but in reality these cannot be supported by evidence from clinical trials.

Having the gene which causes vitiligo can confer some protection against skin melanoma

Yes, there is now some evidence from studies carried out in America that this may be true.

Normal skin can turn white when it is damaged

This is true. Vitiligo can sometimes occur in scars or areas of skin that have been traumatised. It is known as the Köbner phenomenon.

There are no effective treatments available

This is not true. There are many well-established treatments including topical steroids, light therapy and cosmetic camouflage that are fully available through your medical practitioner. Although these treatments have variable success rates, they should be offered and made available to people with vitiligo. Your GP will be able to provide some of these, but in most cases it will be necessary, to have a referral to a dermatologist.

Stress makes vitiligo worse

Although there is no medical evidence to back this up, anecdotally, some people with vitiligo feel that stress definitely worsens their condition or that stress might have been the trigger which started the vitiligo the “trigger” which caused the vitiligo to start. Hormonal changes have also been cited as the reason for the appearance of vitiligo.

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