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What is vitiligo?

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Close up of a hand with Vitiligo

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  • Vitiligo is a rare skin condition that affects up to 2% of the world’s population. While this skin condition is not fatal, having these white patches makes a person more prone to sunburn. There are mixed conclusions for its potential to increase the risk for skin cancer
  • Vitiligo is much more noticeable in people with dark skin. Some of the external stimuli usually said to influence the occurrence of vitiligo include stress, physical trauma and pregnancy

Vitiligo is a rare skin condition that affects up to 2% of the world’s population, and about 2 million to 5 million people in the United States are affected by this disease.1

Vitiligo is characterized by the loss of pigment in various areas of the skin. The extent and severity of vitiligo varies from person to person, with some people developing small patches, while others having large white areas that cover a considerable amount of their skin. To determine the extent of the disease in vitiligo patients, doctors may employ a couple of different tests, or a combination of the two, that achieve a “score” reflecting the disease’s extent, stage and progression.2

The cause for the loss of melanocytes in the skin, however, is not yet known. A 2003 study reviewed scientific research that back the possibility of it being an autoimmune disease. This may be supported by the efficacy of treatment options with immunosuppressive effects.3

While this skin condition is not fatal, it should be noted that having these white patches could make a person more prone to sunburn.4 As for the possibility of a heightened risk for skin cancer, there have been mixed conclusions. While it was first believed that vitiligo may contribute to the development of cancer, it is now being proposed that the preexistence of vitiligo actually protects patients from the development of melanoma.5

Vitiligo risk and occurrence

The age when vitiligo becomes active largely varies among populations, although patients typically start showing hypopigmentation in their 20s.6 The risk for developing this condition is not dictated by race or gender, with every person in the population having an equal chance of getting vitiligo.7 However, vitiligo is much more noticeable in people with dark skin.8

Some of the external stimuli usually said to influence the occurrence of vitiligo include stress, physical trauma and pregnancy.9 People affected by autoimmune diseases also have a higher risk of contracting vitiligo. The explanation for this heightened risk is not yet fully understood, but it is commonly connected to how the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells.10

Common conditions mistaken for vitiligo

Depigmentation of the skin is not a symptom that is exclusive to vitiligo. Vitiligo macules (discolored skin areas) share the same appearance as other marks, which may be caused by a wide selection of conditions, as described below.

Because of the uncertainty and the lack of a clear differentiation between these conditions, vitiligo patients are commonly discriminated against or even avoided, in fear that they may have contracted infectious diseases. Vitiligo is commonly mistaken for the following skin conditions:11

Pityriasis alba — This condition starts with the development of pink scaly patches, which then heal and leave white macules on the skin.12 The cause for this is not known but it is usually attributed to atopic dermatitis.13

Piebaldism — This genetic condition is characterized by the lack of melanocytes at certain areas of the body.14 It is commonly observed in the forelock or the frontal part of the head. Other areas that may be affected by this condition include the chin, trunk and eyebrows. While there have been accounts of repigmentation, they are usually stable and do not spread or reassume color, unlike with vitiligo.15

Tinea versicolor — This is a condition caused by the overabundance of yeast in the skin. This causes small white patches on the trunk, back and arms.16

Leprosy — One of the common mistakes that people commit when talking about vitiligo is wrongly concluding that it is synonymous to leprosy. In India, there is a fear of people who have vitiligo because of the belief that these two conditions are the same.17

However, leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae,18 while vitiligo is an autoimmune disease and cannot be transmitted from person to person.19

Albinism — The difference between these conditions can be easily observed through the variations in the extent of the affected skin. Albinism, a congenital disorder, affects the whole body, while vitiligo affects only a portion of the skin.20

Albinism is not a condition that is acquired through time. On the contrary, it is genetic and is not caused by the destruction of the melanocytes found in the skin.21

MORE ABOUT VITILIGO

Vitiligo: an Introduction

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo Symptoms

Vitiligo Causes

Types of Vitiligo

Vitiligo Treatment

Vitiligo Prevention

Vitiligo Diet

Vitiligo FAQ

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