What Is Vitiligo? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What is vitiligo? It is a condition that causes discoloration of the skin. Read this lesson to learn what causes it, what the other symptoms are, and how it can be treated. Then take the quiz to see how much you learned!

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes loss of skin pigment in patches around the body. Once it begins, it is almost impossible to predict how fast it will spread or which areas of the body will be affected. Any part of your skin can be affected, as well as your hair, the inside of your mouth, or even between your eyes. The underlying cause of vitiligo is the death of the melanin cells (the cells responsible for skin pigment). The condition can affect anyone, though it is more noticeable in people with darker skin tones, simply because of the contrast.

Vitiligo is often less noticeable on lighter skin tones.

What Causes Vitiligo?

Cells that produce melanin are called melanocytes, and vitiligo occurs when these cells die or stop functioning properly. Regions where the cells are affected begin to turn white because there is no longer any skin pigment present. This could be due to inheriting the condition (there's often a family history of vitiligo), or it could be due to a compromised immune system where your body begins attacking its own cells. In some cases, it may be caused by specific events, like an extreme sunburn or skin injury.

What Are the Symptoms?

The primary symptom of vitiligo is a loss of skin pigment in patches of skin or hair. Affected skin will turn white, and hair may turn grey or white at an early age. Visible mucus membranes may lighten in color (like the inside of your nose or mouth), and patches can appear anywhere on the body. Typically, symptoms will appear by the age of 20, though it is possible to develop symptoms later in life. There is no predictable pattern to where the patches will develop on your body, though in many cases, it will eventually affect a majority of your body, and it is unlikely the pigment will ever return, even with treatment.

Vitiligo causes discoloration of skin in patches.

Treatment Options

There are many treatment options, but none of them are guaranteed to work. Though medications cannot bring new life to your melanocytes, they can affect the appearance of your skin. There are topical creams that can reduce inflammation and add some color back to your skin; however, these also have side effects of their own, like thinning of the skin in application areas. If a compromised immune system is to blame, there are medications that can target the immune system and at least slow the spread of vitiligo.

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